f/16, is a memoir. It began as a book about women who are photojournalists but evolved, out of necessity and the encouragement of some incredible people, into a narrative that also includes me. And, so too has the title evolved. f/16 is a setting on a camera’s aperture. There’s something known as the “sunny f/16 rule” that assists with correct exposure of difficult subjects. This aperture setting also allows for increased depth in an image. f/16 also represents the sixteen women who are photojournalists whom I spoke to over the course of a couple of years. They are the pillars of this book, holding their focus on the world while I, in a sense, had to learn to read the light, all over again. It took me awhile to figure out my own approach to writing about women in the world (the photographers and those photographed), but I have. Today, I thought I’d share the prologue. Just days before the idea for this book began to take hold, this is what was going on:
Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.
With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.
Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me in a flack jacket flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.
Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.
Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away. I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.
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