My Dad and my Son

This Canon FT QL was my dad’s camera. My dad passed away when I was 14. The camera is one of the few items of Dad’s that I’ve kept with me as I’ve moved around. It is the camera that I remember him using throughout my childhood, and it captured many of my early moments. Like my scrunched-up face when I ate some orange peel when I was about one, or when I put on one of Dad’s t-shirts and looked like a monk when I was about two.

I started using it a couple of years after Dad passed away, and I learned the real techniques of film photography on this camera. It is fully manual, so it was a steep learning curve, but I borrowed books from the library and looked up websites (few and far between back then) to piece things together. I bought a wide angle lens and a flash to broaden my capabilities (while working a part-time job and couch surfing… I miss the pre-hipster film photography market). Later, the film market dwindled and processing labs became more scarce, but I shot the odd roll of film and went hunting for extant labs. When I first left uni, got a job, and found the still-depressed vintage camera market a little more accessible, I shot with Dad’s camera regularly alongside newer acquisitions.

Even as I still call it, and think of it, as Dad’s camera, it is probably the possession that has most influenced who I am. It is a little hard to describe the significance of an object that both represents and facilitates a shared experience with someone who is gone. I know that Dad looked through the same finder, adjusted the same shutter speed dial and aperture ring, and pressed the same shutter button. I am on the other side of the lens now, but it is the same machine. And the photos he took, even the seemingly unimportant photos of flowers and leaves tucked into the family photo archives (I was very glad to be present when they were discovered, they were so nearly thrown out), reveal thought processes so similar to my own, and now so impossible to deduce through observation or conversation. The experience shared is not just of using the same small machine, but of seeing the world in a similar way. I record shadows of my times and places, and I am simultaneously living out a shadow of Dad recording his times and places, many years before.

My son was born early on an autumn morning. After the midwives had left, my wife and son and I rested for a while. We were exhausted, but we were, for the first time, together as a little family. As every new dad does in this moment, I took out a camera to take photos of my amazing wife holding our newborn. I took out Dad’s camera.

I had been thinking, in the weeks leading up to my son’s birth, that it would be nice to use his camera as a tangible representation of my dad, present in the early moments of my son’s life that I would have shared with him if he was here. So I had bought some fast film that would work well indoors and loaded it up weeks in advance, ready to sling the camera bag over my shoulder in a potential midnight dash to the hospital. And in those moments after we met my son, exhausted and happy in equal measure, I recorded some shadows of a beautiful time. I photographed my son with his extended family as they gleefully came to meet him. I took some photos of my wife and son as we sat with him in our hospital room, stunned, adoring, and weary. I took more when we left the hospital and settled him into our home, his home, as part of our little family.

Dad couldn’t be among the family members who came to meet my son and to help us settle in. It meant a lot to me, though, that I could include him by recording those times in much the same way he would have when he became a father. Looking through the same finder, adjusting the same settings, pressing the same shutter button, allowing a flicker of light to pass through the same lens as when I was a baby and Dad was the exhausted young father full of joy. Twenty years after he passed away, we have shared a new experience: celebrating and documenting the new life of a son.

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