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Learning About Dad, Thirteen Years Later

[1]There is a large, framed photograph hanging in the foyer of my mom’s new house in the Fan. The haunting eyes of Pakistani women and their children stare through the glass, seeming to look right through your skin and bones and into your soul. The photograph used to hang in the house I grew up in.  It was framed against a dark blue wall in the living room, near the piano I played as a kid. I remember being mesmerized by the photo when I was young—it represented a world so far away, a culture I had never been in touch with, and it was beautiful in a way that almost scared me.

The photo was taken by my father during his three months living in Pakistan. He traveled there in the early 1980s, working as a physical therapist for a man who had been in an accident in New York City. I usually remember my dad as the doctor, the athlete, and the goofball that he so obviously was. But there was a whole side of him that I barely knew as a kid: my dad the adventurer. Beyond the YMCA soccer coach, and the PhD student that could throw a mean pizza crust, was a man who once moved across the world for an opportunity to live and learn in a foreign culture.

The camera that my dad traveled with was a Canon AE-1. The heavy, metal-bodied, fully manual camera is what he used to make the portrait of the Pakistani women. It also traveled with him to Australia, to Europe, and around the United States. I don’t know when or how my dad got the Canon AE-1, but I do know that he cherished it. He once told me that Pakistani officials confiscated the camera and his film when they saw him taking pictures out of an airplane window. He never got that roll of film back, but he was happy to have his camera returned to him undamaged.

I wish I could remember when it was that my dad taught me to use the Canon. He passed away when I was ten, so I was pretty young when he taught me how to split-level focus and how to use the built-in light meter. I remember holding the camera and peering through the viewfinder, while my dad helped me support its weight. It was the coolest thing ever—a person could put their eye up to this little metal box and capture a memory that would appear on paper, and that would last forever.

When my dad died suddenly from heart failure, I forgot about photography.  In fact, I forgot about most things.  All I could focus on were the sadness and anger that I felt. He was gone, and there was nothing I could do about it. As I entered into my teenage years, I was angry that I had so few memories of my father, and I felt that I hadn’t really gotten to know him.  Stories about him were nice, but they were never enough for me. I was unsatisfied.  His death left a hole in me, and I didn’t know how to fill it.

When I turned thirteen, three years after my dad died, my mom bought a new battery for the Canon and gave it to me for my birthday. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the best gift I ever received. I immediately started shooting still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, and I won some photography awards in middle school contests. I knew that I loved using the camera, but what I didn’t know at age thirteen was that it would later connect me to my dad in an unexpected way.

Jump forward to today. That Canon AE-1 has kept me shooting pure, vivid, film photographs in an age that is digital and edited. It has pushed me to travel and see the world, in hopes of capturing beauty in faraway places. It has gone with me to Peru, to Alaska, on a road trip across the United States, and most recently, on a two-month trip to Nepal. I never thought that I would take after my dad in this way—I’m now someone who travels the world and immerses myself in different cultures. I’m his kid. The kid that took portraits of beautiful Nepali men, women, and children. The kid that obsessively captures fleeting memories of friends on film. The kid that has framed photographs hanging in the foyer of my mom’s house, right next to the portrait of the Pakistani women.

I am now twenty-three years old. When I define myself, I am first an artist and a photographer. Everything else about me seems a little less important.  My job and my location are just temporary homes for Emily, the artist. So now I look back on my childhood definition of my father: he was a dad, a physical therapist, a teacher, a soccer coach.  That’s how I defined him my whole life, because that’s how my ten-year-old eyes saw him.  Now, I look back and wonder, did my dad define himself that way? Or was his job just a home for Scott, the photographer? The adventurer? The artist? I guess I’ll never really know the answer to that question.  What I do know is that thirteen years after losing my dad, I’m learning about him in a way I never expected.

We can always learn about our lost loved ones by asking questions about them or hearing stories about them. But in many ways, we are all extensions of the people that we have lost.  This means we can learn about them just by looking deep inside ourselves. In the past few years, I have discovered more about the man my dad must have been, both through my own world travels and through growing up, than I did in my childhood years of knowing him. It’s a part of loss and grief that I never expected.

It’s beautiful and uplifting to know that my dad will never leave me. He travels with me in his Canon AE-1, and I continue to learn about him through the traits, characteristics, skills, and hobbies that I inherited from him.  I will continue to make photographs to hang next to his, and I will continue to explore the world with the curiosity and motivation that he possessed.

Special thanks to Emily Sullivan for sharing this story with us.