When We Used To Eat Cake For Breakfast

By Saleem Ahmed
Published October 16th, 2018


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A few years ago I found a few undeveloped rolls of film in my mom’s home office. They were forgotten within drawers full of middle school report cards, half-filled notebooks, and leftover school supplies. Things my mom has been holding on to forever.

It wasn’t a surprising discovery, especially since I tend to forget rolls of film everywhere. I figured the rolls were from the last year or so. Probably photos from wandering around my hometown or from testing another garage-sale camera. My mom probably found them and put them away for safe-keeping.

Luckily, I was completely wrong. 

It turned out that I had stumbled across decade-old family photographs from various vacations, special occasions, and spontaneous situations. Photos of that snake charmer performing outside the Taj Mahal. Photos from that day we tried to fly kites in the backyard. Photos from those birthday mornings, when we used to eat cake for breakfast.

 
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As some of you already know, I’ve been compiling an archive of family photographs for the last few years. It’s been a slow process of digitizing images from albums found in the United States and India. A process that I’ve written about before, while working on Rani Road in 2015.

These neglected images, however, felt different. They never quite made it to our family albums, let alone the 1-hour Costco photo lab. They were trapped in film canisters and lost in transition, as we moved to digital cameras and memory cards. They were images that nobody in my family had ever seen, and likely didn’t realize existed. They were new old stock, and I got to sort through them first.

I’ve always remembered these moments as vague fragments in my mind. Missing were the tiny details; my mom’s handmade placemats, the original wooded kitchen cabinets, and my love affair with ugly Nikes. These photos helped fill-in the memories that had been collecting dust for decades.

 
 
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While the content of the images themselves mean a great deal to me, I am equally intrigued by how and why we created these images in the first place. They were personal and private. They were intended for us first, not the rest of the world.

They were all from a shared family camera; a concept that now seems silly, since we all have cameras in our pockets. I couldn’t tell you the exact make or model, but it was probably one of those cookie-cutter point-and-shoot cameras. Those plastic black bricks with a wrist strap dangling from the corner and a lens that buzzed while zooming. Limited, yet reliable -- like those bulletproof Nokias from the 90s.

The beauty of the family camera was that any given photograph could have been taken by a different person. Each roll contained a range of styles and definitions as to what was worth capturing. Everyone had their own perspective, whether it was because of their physical eye-level or their sense of humor.

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In a way, the family camera was a crash-course on photography. It was an informal introduction to composition and lighting, with family members reminding each other how to use the flash, to move their fingers away from the lens, and to never ever open the back of the camera.

Everything about these images are perfectly imperfect. The timestamps say 1994, but only a few photos could have even been from that year. Some images are distant and blurry. Others are up-close and personal. There is a mix of funny and frustrated faces. Some posed, some candid. And not that ‘plandid’ phenomenon that’s all over social media nowadays.

These are genuine moments. They are real, raw, and romantic.

 
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This isn’t a new realization or sentiment regarding the power of personal photographs. This is precisely why we photograph our lives and loved ones. So we can reminisce and remember our past. So we can look back and question our decisions and muse on our innocence. So we can try and decipher what we were thinking in that instance.

While it makes sense that the shared family camera has disappeared, I think it’s important to then consider the purpose of all the memories we capture on our cameras and that float in the clouds.

To me, it feels like more and more of our experiences are for the rest of the world, rather than ourselves. We curate the moments of our lives for our followers first. I’m guilty of it. It’s part of our culture of over-sharing. We have to keep feeding our feeds, out of the fear of feeling irrelevant.

We have so many photos and they’re all over the place. They exist across different devices, apps, and social networks. On top of that, the life-span of these images seems to be decreasing. We post stories that disappear in 24 hours and delete the photos that other people probably won’t like.

As I continue compiling my own archive, I can’t help but wonder what will happen as technology and sharing continues to evolve. When we want to go back and look at our lives decades from now, will we have a record of it? Will we still have our own personal and private memories that are just for ourselves?

 
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Saleem Ahmed is a regular contributor to Strange Fire Collective. He is a photographer, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia. You can see more of his work by visiting his website or by following him on Instagram @saleemahmed