March and April are missing.
My mother and I scour over the details of the sepia prints, looking for any hints of my chronology. In one picture, I’m a chubby toddler throwing snow into the air, red firecrackers partially visible in the background.
“It’s probably around mid-February, after the Lunar New Year,” my mother tells me.
In the next, my hair is considerably shorter, preparation for a sweltering summer in Zhejiang.
“Let’s call it late May? It’s 2003, since we sent those white shoes earlier that year after you outgrew the red ones,” she says.
From sometime in May 2001 to what I think is Jan. 8, 2004, I don’t have any sense of a personal timeline, let alone a sense of self. For the two and a half years that I lived with my grandmother in China, an ocean away from my parents, I have but 100 Kodak technicolor prints — shipped in quarterly installments from across the Pacific — to show. Only a few have a date jotted on the back.
There’s almost nothing left that can connect me to those years. Many of the buildings I once roamed around have since been demolished and rebuilt; earlier this year, the authorities tore down my grandmother’s generational home. And after spending my adolescence in a different country, the people in the photos are but strangers; some have reunited with our ancestors, while others no longer keep in touch, now nameless faces in a country of a billion faces.
In the grand scheme of the universe, specific dates are hardly the end of the world. But as I flipped through old photos for hours with my mother to piece together my childhood, I realized that I had already lost the concrete attachments to my childhood — the whos, the whats, and the wheres. But without a when, my childhood became fully disembodied, somewhere in space, somewhere in time.
After high school, I once again jetted halfway across the world, this time across the Atlantic, this time completely alone.
Four years of high school had completely burnt me out. Countless late nights, early mornings, and nonstop pressure had sucked the joy out of learning. As excited as I was about Harvard, I was also terrified of falling into the same self-destructive tendencies that had fueled my high school success. After stumbling upon a fully-funded exchange program in Germany, I decided that I would be better off exploring at my own pace for a year before stepping foot in Cambridge.
That was the reason I told my friends, and ultimately the one that convinced my parents. But beneath it all, another desire laid nascent — that of reinventing myself, of reclaiming agency in as many ways as I could. Years before “Emily in Paris” hit Netflix and travel influencers took the world by storm, I was inspired by the Instagram accounts of young people traveling the world on a shoestring budget, many of whom were exchange students on programs similar to mine.
You can be whoever you want in a country where no one knows you, they would say.
In many ways, I did get the experience that I was promised. I navigated everyday life in an unfamiliar country, in a language that I barely had command of. I tested my liver. I jetted around Europe, often alone, with my destinations dictated by Ryanair’s cheapest fares. I had my first heartbreak. I went to my first queer club. I fell in love with Berlin, the city of chasing radical authenticity.
But the sound I remember the most from my time abroad isn’t the jargon of foreign languages, the unrelenting bass at clubs, or the buzz of old-town streets — it’s the slightly sticky shutter click of the beginner Nikon kit that my parents had gifted me before my departure.
I was almost never without it. In no small part, I wanted to announce my place in the world, to show my friends back home photos proving that I was in the midst of an adventure. But more than that, I was motivated by the fear of forgetting. My time abroad had an expiration date — I wanted to capture every single detail of my newfound experiences and trap them in 28-megabyte snapshots. My camera affirmed my existence: Here I was, and here was indisputable proof that I was here.
Over the course of a year, I amassed 20,000 photos. I haven’t touched them since.
Early last year, I picked up a film camera. My mother laughed.
“Why would you return to the junk we used when you were a baby?” she asked me.
The truth was that I was drowning in memories.
On March 10, 2020 — hardly nine months after I had returned to America and just two months into my second semester of college — President Bacow sent out an email to all Harvard students, announcing that we would need to return home within five days due to Covid-19.
My friends and I pretended that it was the end of the world. We cleared out the inventory at cafes on campus, skipped class to venture out to Walden Pond, and stayed up all night to talk about the apocalypse.
On our last day on campus, we woke up at 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise over Weeks Bridge.
The entire time, I snapped portraits of my friends — the solemness on Matej’s face before he departed for his flight back to Slovakia, unsure when he’d be back in the United States; the tight embrace between Delaney and graduating seniors, who would venture into an unknown world; the remnants of the debate team, huddling under a blanket at dawn.
But at home, in lockdown and with all the time in the world to think, I realized that I had been documenting too much and feeling too little. As I scrolled through the pictures from that week, it registered that even though I was with my friends from dawn to dusk every day, I was really spending my time buried behind the lens of my camera. Now, it was unclear when I would be able to see them again.
Perhaps part of my detachment was a subconscious effort to keep myself from confronting the life-changing reality before me. But looking at the 50,000 photos in my library, it was clear to me that my photography obsession in that week was part of a broader pattern: In my quest to remember, I had forgotten that I needed to first live.
So, once I returned to campus in spring 2021, I went analog. The film advance lever of my vintage Pentax always begins smooth but gradually stiffens up. I adjust the focus on the lens to capture the full depth of field before metering the light. Too much exposure, and the image is fried, but I won’t know until it’s developed two weeks later. All in all, it takes me about a minute or two to take a picture, during which I take in my surroundings — the sounds, the smells, and most importantly, how I feel.
And with 36 shots in a roll, I choose my moments deliberately — and then I put my camera away.
This year, I’ve deleted more photos than I’ve taken.
Following my New Year’s resolution, I visit my photo library before I sleep each night, examining the 22 years of photos taken on that day each year. Some moments I easily remember — the time I was bitten by a dog on New Year’s Eve, my first time venturing out of the state for a swim competition at age 13, passing through radiation detectors and into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
But some buried memories do come rushing back as I look through the archives: a trip to downtown Chicago, an evening cooking with friends, seeing a Gutenberg Bible for the first time. And as I look for these hidden gems, I also notice all the clutter in the way — useless screenshots to document some petty argument, pictures of that painting I promised myself I would Google, three nearly-identical versions of the same food shot. So I purge them.
It’s hard to resist the constant urge to document. But memory is just as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. We need to give ourselves the space to feel the full weight of the moment, because the photo itself is only a negative, an impression, an anchor to return to in moments of nostalgia, in times of need. Our senses must fill in the rest.
These days, I don’t think about those Kodak prints from my childhood much. I don’t blame my relatives for choosing to live outside of the camera’s gaze, only bringing it out for the special moments: the first snowfall, Chinese New Year, awaiting the arrival of summer. And I don’t crave more pictures of my childhood in the first place; the lack of photos doesn’t bother me like it used to.
Rather, I have a renewed belief in the power of my memories. I do not need constant documentation of my existence. Photos may capture part of the scene, but all they are is a gateway, one that unlocks stories, feelings, and moments. Perhaps I may never completely recover my childhood, but that is equally part of what it means to live.
— Magazine writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @byAZWang.