on the importance of self portraits

A portrait I took of myself just a few weeks after I bought a piece of property. I was living alone in a tent at the time.

I’VE ONLY SEEN TWO PHOTOGRAPHS of my parents before they had my sister and me. One is a typical wedding photo. They’re walking down the aisle at Saint Joseph’s as a newly married couple, my mom in a short-sleeved gown she made herself and my dad in a light grey tuxedo. Their arms are linked and they’re looking out into the pews of people.

The second is a photo from before they were married. They’re camping somewhere in Maine, sitting on a rock with their arms around each other — the same way you’d wrap your arm around your best friend. There’s a curving tree line behind them. My mom’s wearing a wool sweater she still has, her hair is down and frizzy. Even with the soft black-and-white grain, you can tell she’s still a natural, light blonde. (Her hair turned brown when she was pregnant with me.) My dad has a mustache. It looks odd to me; I’ve only known him with a full beard. He’s smiling, his eyes curled up into half-moons. He looks a lot like I do when I smile.

This photo remains taped to our fridge at home, fragile, almost translucent in its old age. Taken more than 30 years ago, it’s one of the only remaining artifacts of my parents’ life before kids.

Whenever any of us comes back from traveling, my family insists that we show our photographs in a kind of grandiose slideshow on our television. We’re all required to ooh and ahh as Caribbean mountains fade into exotic flowers, odd fruits, and turquoise waters we’ll never get to wade through ourselves.

When I was still in college, I went on a backpacking trip through the Dominican Republic. I returned in late spring around my birthday. After dinner with my parents, we retired to the living room, where I clicked through my photos of kid goats and tied up horses, sunsets over sugarcane fields, and all the fire-charred fish I ate whole.

Out of maybe 100 photos, there was just one of me. I was standing on the side of the road in Las Galeras with my borrowed 60-liter backpack, hoping to get a ride with someone going west. A guy I’d met at the hostel had quickly snapped the photo. I was squinting into the sun, my hair loosely French-braided and my face almost completely sunburned. I don’t have that photo anymore. I didn’t like how red my face looked so I quickly deleted it years ago, not even stopping to think that it was the only real evidence of me in the Dominican Republic as a 20-year-old. [read more]