Verbal Polaroids

We were flipping through the photographs of my sister’s wedding taken a little over a year ago. The double reams of prints comprised a good mix of posed and candid shots snapped throughout the day — the bride ensconced in the tight embrace of her entourage, bridesmaids grinning from ear to ear, clasping bouquets of blue and yellow; the newly married couple emerging from the Church, greeted by bubbles and a giddy crowd; miniature paeans to the small details that set every wedding apart: the bride’s printed sneakers, the white orchids that graced her march down the aisle, the gilded tiny portraits decorating the tables at the reception, painstakingly rendered by the mother-of-the-bride with clear nail polish to give the effect of real paintings. Love came in full force that day. She was apparent in the presents that topped the table, etched into every line of well-wishers and speech-givers, carried like a broach by the assemblage of the couple’s closest friends and relatives. Pure joy and elation pulsed through the crowd and was lovingly passed back and forth between the couple, in tender glances, quick kisses and captured smiles. Smiles, smiles everywhere.


Through the years, I have come to marvel at the magic of photographs. I wonder at the sorcery of a single picture – its simultaneous power of time travel and flight. There is a majesty contained in each shot. It is the antithesis of Pandora’s box. It is emotion reified. It is a slice of life made to last. An evanescent instance freed from its expiration date. My fascination is perhaps most evident in the digital pictures I carry with me like an appendage, numbering in the tens of thousands and in the many thousands more which have long occupied my hard drive. This captivation with documenting life carries with it a sense of urgency, a stubborn insistence on extending my memory to encompass both daily minutiae and grand occasions.


It is hard to pin down where my preoccupation with documentation stems from. My family likes to remind me that as a child, I avoided group photos like the plague. When compelled to take a picture, I would respond with a scowl. Grumps, they called me for my disdain of forced smiles. Perhaps this discomfort with having my photograph taken lingers in my awkwardness in candid and posed photos. “Learn how to smile” was the number four item of my November 2007 to-do list and made occasional appearances in subsequent lists, couched in between study for Biology test and finish social studies readings. ID picture and class picture days were always viewed with combined dread and anxiety. In a family vacation to the US one summer, my siblings coined the phrase “Monica smile” to mean an attempted smile with eyes closed firmly. We took a few group shots this way. Slowly, this odd personal struggle has abated.


Perhaps my lack of happy posed photos as a toddler resulted in an overcompensation of sentimentality. I slowly evolved into “trash lady”, armed with a small pouch filled with gum wrappers among other odds and ends of childhood. I would march from store to store in the mall, collecting flyers and then stuff these into my purse. In grade school, during recess or dismissal, I would carefully copy down the motivational sayings on the classroom bulletin board, documenting as many snippets of school life as I could. Even now, keepsakes from daily life – coffee cup warmers, napkins from restaurants, stickers from beer bottles and ice cream cups — fill up drawers and drawers.


This preoccupation of mine with souvenir collection occasionally devolves into an obsession, what my family likes to call “tunnel vision” as if my whole being becomes blind to other things, bent on a mission to document. One of the rare times I can remember my brother being visibly irritated with me was when I would not stop badgering him to let me return on my own to a museum we had visited the day earlier while on a family trip – I could not get over the fact that the museum gift shop had closed before I had a chance to buy a postcard to document the visit; I have since learned to allot ten minutes to return to any gift shop before closing time. On an earlier trip, my mom and I frantically rushed back to a Chinese restaurant where I accidentally left behind a crumpled paper bag of souvenir coins and dug through the trash with a pair of chopsticks to find it. In a similar incident, I remember running panicked to a Winnie the Pooh ride to find my forgotten plastic of penny press. On a trip to New York last year, I navigated down to a neighborhood solo – three subway lines, heart-beating non-stop – to buy an Andy Warhol book from the MoMa. A week earlier, my sister scolded me for fishing out her discarded boarding pass from the otherwise empty trashcan. These mementos take up considerable emotional weight and importance. Their physical weight looms as well – on our trip to Singapore in May, nearly ten kilos of my luggage was accounted for by bags of brochures, tickets, magazines from the airplane and hotel among other ephemera. One such bag was unfortunately lost when we returned home in spite of sleepless nights trying in vain to recover it. In an odd way, these attempts to document moments become events in themselves.


And so I cling on to my unshakeable desire to chronicle life as it passes. To my mental to-do list I have added “learn how to look decent in a candid photo”, although the how of this particular item escapes me. Near the top of the same list sits the actual organizing of mementos — collecting all my held-onto odds and ends and arranging these into a proper scrapbook or album. I picture my family gathering one day, looking through the albums of our shared life, slowly turning pages and laughing, marveling at the photographs’ uncanny ability to turn back time.