Photographs can provide an anchor that sometimes escapes words.
A child’s first birthday. A toddler’s tentative first steps to childhood. That first day at school, when their hand is clammy in yours. The last day, when the uniform is dishevelled with the hurry of a world that awaits.
Graduation. That beam, as they walk down the aisle of a church to make a commitment for life.
First loves and breakups. Milestones and momentos. First cars, even if it was a purple Cortina with a furry dice. First homes, signalling a new moment in time. New beginnings. And the final picture of a loved one.
Photo albums might be turning yellow with age, but hard drives tell the story of different long lives. Overseas holidays. That caravan trip. Around the fire, the tales are long forgotten, but that picture remains as vivid as the embers on that winter night.
Photographs are the picture diary we choose to remember.
And then there are the other photos that we can’t forget. No matter how hard we try.
Where the words to match them can be avoided or rushed over, the picture provides a steadying focus.
That photograph, this week, that told us so much about the heartbreaking toll of Taliban cruelty.
Hundreds and hundreds of Afghans – old and young, male and female – taking their place in a United States military cargo plane we all wished was much bigger.
All up, 640 Afghans, in a space usually reserved for 134 soldiers, showing the plight of a country headed for Taliban control.
But now, in 2021, with video and cameras from all directions, we can also see the story around the picture.
Hundreds of others racing up the aircraft’s half-open ramp in the hope of securing freedom. Others sitting on the top of passenger jets or holding onto the aircraft as it took off from Kabul’s airport.
The photograph can’t show the shots, fired by US troops, to warn those to stay clear. But with a clarity that is hard to forget, they captured some falling to their death from the plane after take-off.
To me, it was a picture like that which continues to tell the story of 9/11, when Al-Qaeda waged war on all of us on a Tuesday morning, US time. It was the photographs of those law-abiding, hard-working Americans falling to their death from the sky that is seared in my memory forever.
We might know where we were when Princess Diana died, but it was the photograph of her, sitting on the diving board of Mohammed Al Fayed’s private yacht, as a single seagull flew overhead, that will not fade. With all the riches in the world, it was her loneliness that wrote the headline.
I’m a touch too young to have heard live Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on the moon. But that picture we all know, no matter our age.
Another was Gough Whitlam’s defiance captured during his dismissal speech.
Barack Obama’s election to power, and the history that created.
Donald Trump, as he was dismissed by voters from the highest office in the land.
John Howard’s win over gun lobbyists.
A dishevelled Barnaby Joyce wondering where life will take him next.
The heartbreak of our bushfires. And the desperate search for loved ones in an earthquake. Aceh. Florida. The North Queensland floods.
The address can change, but the clarity of a story, writ large in pixels, is almost impossible to forget.
The mangled wreck of a car crash. The zinc-coloured face of footy fans at the grand final. The photographs that tell the story of climate change.
But it will be years, perhaps decades, before we should try to erase the photograph that we woke to this week. And we should use it, with all our might, to force change to the cruel rule that allows it.