x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

On family photos

On the importance of family pictures and why they should be cherished.

Andrew Henderson / The National
Andrew Henderson / The National

On the importance of family pictures and why they should be cherished My grandmother said: "Come and sit beside me," and I did. I had a sore throat and a fever after a long, stressful week. I sat beside her with all the old pictures of the family surrounding me. My grandmother was rearranging the albums. She has a collection of family photos that goes back more than 100 years. Since I have always been fascinated by old photos and old stories, this felt like a perfect journey. I always carry a camera and take pictures of the family's special moments: trying not to miss a good laugh, a funny slip or a young baby in his first shower.

I particularly cherish pictures of my grandfather, who passed away when I was a young girl. Seeing pictures of him on trips or with his friends helps me understand his personality. Every time I look, I find myself understanding him more. And now, when I smile at a camera, I keep in mind the grandchildren who might smile back. I picked out a black-and-white picture of my father, as a four-year-old with his friends. He looked so cute, like my brother Ahmed now. It's interesting to see your parents as children; it's like going back in time.

"This is you," my grandmother said, smiling, throwing a photo of a tiny baby into my lap. "No, I think this is my brother Rayyan," I said. "No. It's you!" she insisted. And that was the end of that. I'm sure she knew better since I was only a day old at the time. "What do you know of real pictures?" she suddenly said. "Now you have them all on the computer and you don't enjoy them. Where are the pictures of London last summer? Why haven't you developed them yet? We never get to see the pictures you take with the new camera."

She was right. I never seem to have the time to add captions to my photographs or arrange them in albums. Like his mother, my father also documented our life. I don't remember a trip without his video camera. I still have the very first one he and my mother bought after they were married. It is a huge Sony, with big cassettes and a big red shoulder strap: it could probably win an antiques competition now.

My grandmother was putting the photographs in new albums to preserve them for the next generation. "We don't stay for long, but these pictures should. Look at this one: your grandfather's friends. They are all dead now, Allah yerhamhom, I don't know them," she said sadly. "Shall I throw it out?" It wasn't easy for her to decide what to leave out or what to keep. Every picture showed a bit of a life that had passed. But sometimes you need to let go and make room for newcomers.

There is a whole department of old photos in the National Centre of Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi, which I often visit. It is a wonderful archive and they welcome any assistance in documenting the faces of UAE history, or remembering the story behind a picture. Bring in the originals, keep them in safe hands and keep a copy for yourself. Through that you will be preserving your family's, your country's and your region's history.

Eventually my granny said: "This picture of your grandfather's friends - give it to your dad. He will know them, and keep it."

Fatima al Shamsi is away