I recently finished copyediting the memoir of a man well known in his field. The manuscript was mainly a record of a long and successful working life: coming from a humble background, but, through a combination of natural ability, hard graft and sheer doggedness, rising to become a member of the establishment, rewarded with the respect of colleagues, peers and even the wider public, as well as financially.
It was a good, inspiring read. At the end I almost cried, such was the strength of the message of redemption, and optimism for future generations. The hope that in telling his story, he might ease the way for others to follow a similar trajectory. It was one of those editing jobs that is less like work and more like pleasure.
Near the beginning of the memoir, the man explained that he had always documented his life. He had carefully kept photographs, letters, diaries, sketches and sundry other evidence picked up along the path from young adulthood to professional maturity. He’d been inspired to do this by an older member of his family who’d done the same, and he’d picked up the idea and run with it. It was as if he’d always trusted that one day, someone would be interested enough in him to demand the documentation to support the story of his life. And as it turned out, he was quite right. It is a life we should be interested in. His archive has tremendous worth. There is a whole building under construction devoted to it.
As I read about the early lightbulb moment when he decided to document his life, I marvelled at his foresight, his conviction, his commitment to curation – and I’m reminded of that anew this week, as I scroll through Twitter and see people sharing photos of themselves at twenty. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a trend; perhaps more a collective urge. It might only be in my approximate bubble. A straightforward expression of longing for the time long before.
As some have pointed out, for anyone who came of age before a time of widespread digital photography, it can be hard to lay hands on a picture of oneself at twenty. I happen to have a photo, but it’s not a very good one. Like many others, I suspect, I do not have an archive of my life. Or at least, not outside my head. Instead I have a shoebox full of jumbled photos. Many are out of focus or include people whose names I have forgotten, or would like to forget. Many show me as I would not want to remember myself, with ill-proportioned adolescent features, or spots, or bad clothes, or terrible hair, or massive purple glasses. As well as the shoebox I have email attachments, and I have Facebook. I have not curated a record of anything much at all. I have lived a life of utter documentary carelessness and profligacy.
The photo I happen to have, incidentally, is a lie. I look happy and relaxed, and I look warm. The photo was taken in the sun, but this was merely a brief spell during one of the wettest, coldest trips of my life, to northern Italy with my architecture classmates, in 1995. Goodness only knows why I’m not wearing a coat. The lighting of the photo makes it look as if I am on a beach, or in an open city square. In fact I am sitting on the wind-whipped rooftop testing track of the old Fiat factory in Turin. Socially, I was uneasy. I had a small group of good friends but I was also a misfit on my course, uncertain in my choice of degree subject, uncommitted and confused. I was wistful, often lonely. I was romantically and sexually frustrated.
Even with all this, I like looking at the photo now. I look quite sweet, quite innocent, a bit cheeky (literally and otherwise), capable of being good fun despite myself. My partner likes this photo; he would like to have met me when I was this age. It would certainly have been simpler in some ways, had that happened. There would have been fewer children between us already, for a start. But we got there in the end.
I love looking at other people’s photos, too. For start, I think of context: I wonder how many they had to choose from. Are they like me, are they grabbing at scattered remnants? Or do they have whole albums of the things to select from, ordered by year and labelled? Many of the photos people share are quite sexy, and I’m a little jealous of those. I was so unconfident at that age, it hurt. Every photo shared is as much a revelation of the stories people want to tell about themselves now as it is about the time and circumstances and form they found themselves in at the time. Some photos look like album covers. Some are funny. Some are endearing. Some are confrontational. Some want to be liked. Some are unrecognisable, while others show the subject virtually unchanged. Some people sharing the photos might actually still be twenty.
Most of all the photos show us as points of light, our lives not linear. Any narrative is artificial, imposed after the facts.
And all of this makes me want to see into the future. (I can’t imagine the future right now, but I trust it’s out there.) What will we make of this time? What are the stories we’ll tell about ourselves now? What are the stories other people will tell, based on what we show them, and what we don’t? When we study the documentation – and there’ll be such a great deal of it – everything that has happened will seem inevitable, if senseless at the time. From wherever we stand, how could it be anything else?
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She likes documents very much, but she couldn’t eat a whole one.