Read this year’s winner below:
The First Photograph
by Alek Gorbaty
I bought a polaroid the day my father died. I remember finding an old passport photo of him in my wallet as I paid for the camera, in cash. It surprised me because I did not recall putting it there. I had no idea he would die several hours later. Heart attack. There was no warning, you see. No omen. When it happened, a text message just wrapped itself around the grapevine of my family like the tendrils of a parasitic and poisonous flame lily.
You might be taken aback now when I tell you that my mother sanctioned the use of SMS to publicise her husband’s death but in my family we don’t speak much unless we are physically together. Getting together to talk privately in hushed tones takes time.
I’m not completely sure how many generations back that systemic behaviour started or exactly which circumstances instigated it. I have often silently guessed. Logic says it is due to the Great Terror of the 1930s, which you might know as Stalin’s Purge. During that time, friends and neighbours accused each other of misdemeanours and many were carted off to pointless work camps, never to return or just disappeared, not-even-so-mysteriously. Folk spoke falsely and publicly to deflect attention from themselves and appear to side with the regime. Everyone needed to side with the government because in reality, many did not. The Russian revolution was supposed to free the people but it came to do the opposite. It became counterproductive as time went on. Stalin grew increasingly terrified of a counterrevolution and quashed any small signs of it budding. People ratted on their own family members behind their backs to save their skins. If a family had any influence or intellectuals in their midst they were especially at risk. Even schoolteachers were in a dangerous position.
Then the second world war broke out and what was left of the Russian nation had to unite to fight the oppressors. The other oppressors. The war made everything worse. My grandfather saw cannibalism practised in alleyways and stairwells because of starvation. Those who couldn’t bring themselves to do things like that ate leather to survive. People with important jobs got bread. Battles left many dead. Yes, those times were terrible for Mother Russia.
We must move on though. Time does not stand still. Then I must tell you that the day my father died was also the day my son was born. He came into the world through the efforts of my wife barely an hour after my father had passed away. Life left and arrived at the same time in the same hospital. Sometimes, I like to think that a part of my father’s departing soul went into my son’s. It would be so nice. So, with the camera I had purchased to take some nice shots of my newborn I also ended up taking a few of my father lying peacefully.
When I got the message telling me which ward he lay in, I walked quickly to his room, stole pieces of time with my polaroid and hurried back to hear my son’s cries. I remember that day being like a black cloud with a hole in the middle that allowed the radiant sun to reach us all.
Commiserations and congratulations landed in equal measure. What could anyone do? In fact, it was most compassionate of my father to have his heart attack at that moment. Graciously, he let his own light be eclipsed by his grandson. That was my father’s way. Making other people look good. For us that day, my son came as a hero. That is how we named him. In Russian, we say ‘Geroy.’
I took many photographs of our new little hero. I tried to fill the hole my father left that way. It was a deep, deep hole. One that had never been there before. It had always been filled by my father. When you come into life, you cannot imagine that such a void can exist. I looked at my son in my wife’s arms and thought that I must prepare him for his own day of emptiness. I am far from immortal myself, I think. I am capable of leaving this life at any moment too, even though I don’t wish for that. I wondered if my father had the very same thoughts. Had he prepared me a little somehow, if only subtly? That would also be his way.
My wife felt my pain but she was exhausted. Although the labour process came early and was quick, she had borne Geroy for nine full months. I did have some guilt that I was not the one to bring her to the hospital. My sister’s husband must be thanked for that. Perhaps you wonder why I tell all of this. These events are as natural as breathing so why do I still insist on taking your time? Well, there is a reason and it is a good one. You see, months later when I stumbled upon the photographs I had taken that day I realised that something unusual had taken place. Of course, I was in a state of shock when I took them so nothing about them was intentional. I did not create these effects on purpose.
At the top of the collection were my son’s photos. To look through them was to go in reverse order, back through time, moment by moment. The standard hospital clock on the wall behind my wife’s head went anticlockwise as I shuffled through the events captured by my lens.
12.41 She is dozing off and a nurse removes the child from her arms
12.39 My wife smiles proudly as she presses the fact home that I have become a father myself
12.32 Adoration envelops my son, beginning in his mother’s eyes. It is love at first sight
You pictured the scene. Then the atmosphere in the photos changes to show a man lying on a bed with the sheets folded neatly in. The lighting in the room is somewhat dimmed but the images are not unclear. A machine that was attached to the man has been left on but it is as unresponsive as he is. The only difference is that it is still plugged into a power source. That fact has allowed the machine to go into demo-mode so it gives the momentarily false impression that the patient is yet alive and well. Onscreen, the person is vital. I don’t know why I took so many photographs of my father lying there. There are fifteen in all. Perhaps in my emotional turmoil and sense of loss I was trying to hold onto him as best I could.
Months later, when my mind was considerably calmer but not less sad I noticed a strange feature that didn’t strike me at the time. Either the hospital clock behind his head had never been started or it had stopped right at his time of passing. The coroner’s report said that the time of death was 12 noon exactly. How like my father. He did everything by the clock. I wondered perhaps if it was standard practice for the hospital staff to stop the clock with the deceased, as a sign of respect. I still don’t know the answer to that. I don’t want to know now. Nevertheless, the clock hands both point heavenwards as one, showing me the way my father’s soul went. It’s a comforting thought.
More than that though, I was surprised by the strange effect of looking back through all the photographs with the changes happening on the heart monitor and none happening on the clock. We associate change with time. Without change there can be no time. A clock’s forward movement is caused by many smaller changes. The microscopic charged ions in its battery add the energy of their vibrations to its mechanism which translates to the macroscopic movement we can see. We cannot logically think of time as something separate from change. Or can we…
If there is no movement, no change anywhere in the universe, then is time still passing?
I will let you answer that for yourself. Your answer might change over time.
My biggest surprise came in seeing the final photograph, which of course was the first one I took. The first photo of my dead father – Dmitri Gromov. In it, the heart monitor is on but it has not yet switched to demo mode. All the lines showing the waves triggered by a patient’s vital processes are completely flat. All except one; the heart rate. Right in the middle of the screen it dips dramatically to form a V for Victory.
Of course, we could explain that away by attributing it to electrical impulses that sometimes pass through the body even after death. That would have caused a spike though and not a dip. That’s a very important difference, to me anyway. I haven’t shown the image to experts but I’m quite sure they will not be able to account for the dip. I think I can though, using my knowledge and some logic. You see, during the second world war, the Russians eagerly adopted the V sign made with two fingers that all opponents of the Nazis favoured. It was suggested by the former Belgian Minister of Justice to stand for victory, freedom and never giving up under difficult circumstances. Although my father had to go and never met his grandson, he still managed to convey to me that everything was all right and would be all right.
I believe this.