As the era of the bragging Christmas letter comes to an end, Facebook has taken up the charge by offering your friends and family the opportunity to create a slide show of photos they posted for the last year. I have noticed that all of the slideshows which show up in my newsfeed say it was a great year. I am curious though, do the images really tell the whole story. I wonder if there are nuances that are not conveyed. Similar to the bragging Christmas letter of past years, where fabulous vacations and children’s accomplishments are extolled; hard times are rarely shared, Facebook slideshows don’t seem to tell the whole story. Was it really a great year?
Since November 3, 2014, I have spent a lot of time thinking over the last year. Like so many others our family would compose an annual missive to send with a Christmas card. Each of us shared in writing the letter. Over the last few years my love would craft the letter. It typically touched on the highlights of the year without the feel of bragging. My love had a way with words that conveyed a sense of mirth and hope. Typically the letter would be written the weekend after thanksgiving. For a number of years our son would create the art for the card. This year I just could not find the strength to write a letter. The events of November 3rd lay heavy in my heart. How could I craft a letter that conveyed mirth and hope? In the end, a simple photo of the three of us was used to create a card. On the back, a photo of my love was placed and the caption stated, “Make every moment count as you never know how much time you have left. In loving memory of our beloved husband and father….”
Creating the illusion of an adequate representation of the past year, have I conveyed the true sense of the year with two images? In an attempt to better understand the visual language conveyed in an image, I took a step back in time and reread Roland Barthes essay, “Rhetoric of the Image.” I found comfort in reading Barthes analysis as it conveys the science of being as related to the image presented. A photograph involves a certain arrangement of a scene. In order to read the image, all that is needed is the knowledge bound up with our own perceptions. Barthes state, “the knowledge is not nil, for we need to know what an image is (children only learn this at about the age of four) and what a tomato, a string-bag, a packet of pasta are, but it is a matter of an almost anthropological knowledge. The message corresponds as it were, to the letter of the image and we can agree to call it the literal message, as opposed to the previous symbolic message.” (Barthes, Roland, Rhetoric of the Image, The Visual Culture Reader, Routledge, London & New York, 1998, pg. 72) If the reader of the card just looked at the front, they would see a happy family standing outside the bar they use to own. The reader would see the father and the mother standing on either side of their teenage son, not knowing that this would be the last time the three of them would be together in this place. If the reader of the card turn it over then a deeper meaning would unfold. The image on the back consisted of my love wearing a Santa hat and a twinkle in his eye. What you see is a happy man from a couple a years ago. The only way the reader would have any idea that all was not right with the world would be from the words written on the card. Visually thinking, photographs capture a moment in time that is gone.
A photograph can stimulate a range of emotions: love, hate, anxiety, awe, fear and nostalgia, to name a few. I have been reluctant to allow Facebook to create a slideshow of my year. Sometimes I am curious what kind of slideshow Facebook will create. The random slideshow that Facebook created included images from our last family trip to Washington State; cruises with our son on Stan Stephens’s glacier Cruises; our trip to Minnesota to bring the brothers together one last time; and a tribute to our cat that died a week after my love. You would think that these trips were for grand vacation purposes. While they were time away, we were tasked with making sure my love had an opportunity to say good bye to loved ones. As my love did not want his cancer to be spread out in social media, the only way you would know that he was sick was if you really looked closely at the photos of him. Instead of a twinkle in his eye, his face was tired and gaunt. You would not have easily seen that because he did not want people to know how sick he really was. As a matter of fact, I too did not realize, because he rarely complained (or I did not want to really hear it.) I truly believed we had more time. After my love passed away a friend messaged me in shock. She said she could not figure out what she missed. She had seen all the trips but did not realize that they were bucket list trips. I replied, there were hidden messages in the posts for those who knew about the cancer. The photos of the last year could be perceived as happy family vacations. The reality is the viewer does not get the whole story which does not convey the true essence of the year.
2014 was not solely about loss. My struggle is that I do not know if it is ok to share the good with the bad, given that the bad was so intense. Am I allowed to share that I received the 2014 Governor’s Award for the Humanities; that our son was on the high honor roll in school; that our son received a varsity letter in cross country skiing; that for the first time my love’s family came to visit us in Alaska; that we traveled to Minnesota to bring the three brothers together for the last time; and that our son received a bronze medal in regionals for swimming. Should I edit the Facebook slideshow to include these moments in time as well? Should I move on and look to 2015 with a fresh sense of determination? 2014 was a year that was. I cannot say that is was a great year. There were moments before and after cancer came into our lives that put a smile on my face. I just cannot seem to overcome the great sadness that is representative in my Facebook slideshow of 2014.