I’m one of those people who hate being photographed but I’ve decided to share my thoughts on this snapshot (apt for someone who has the look about her of a war victim about to be shot) taken when I was at nursery school either in Israel (then I would have been 4/5) or South Africa (I’d have been 5/6).
Let’s ignore for a second the part that instantly unnerves me – the body language – and look at the clothes.
I could swear I can still feel in my mind’s fingers the texture of those rough denim pants and the sensation of the clogged seams as I put my hands into the hammock-style pockets. The straight necked top and pilled jersey, hairy with static, fit badly, the jersey an afterthought of a mother or granny who were feeling chilly when they dressed me that morning? There has also been some attempt with my hair, that soft wispy stuff from which hair clips fall within minutes of being placed.
The boy in the distance playing with some equipment is dressed in clothes not too dissimilar to mine but then he is a boy. Compare my dress to that of the girl standing behind me cropped in half by the left photo edge. She in fact is wearing a dress, and a nice summery one, too. The glimpse we get of its style and the matching white socks and shoes set a benchmark of how little girls of that time should be dressed. It’s not, incidentally, too different from the way a girly girl might dress today.
It is because of this little girl that I veer towards placing the photograph in South Africa soon after we immigrated. The differences between the ensembles of the ragged refugee and the Laura Ashley cut-out are just too pointed. And it makes sense: I was sent to nursery school for a couple of months before the beginning of primary school. I began my formal education in Grade 1 at Observatory Girl’s Primary School in Johannesburg but then we moved to Durban and then Margate. I was moved three times in that first year of school but that is another story.
And now to the nub of this post (It has taken me some time warming up to face this painful moment):
Compare the glimpse we get in the photograph of the stance of the girl in the dress to mine. She is rooted, openly curious. Meanwhile, I present myself to the photographer in my odd garb with trepidation, with anxiety, caught between wanting to retreat and wanting to be seen. I clutch myself in the middle, my hands locked into a ball and claw buckle over my stomach. My face is harder to read. It is both open and closed, hooded and vulnerable. It is the overriding feeling of what I remember in my childhood: being socked in the stomach, being overwhelmed, close or in tears. I angle my head slightly asking for…for what? The feeling is inchoate, lost and sad.
(I have suddenly remembered a hugely salient fact: If this photograph is in fact taken in those months before primary school in Johannesburg, this child (me) does not speak any English. She is rent, cut off from her surroundings, ostensibly alone.)
Look again at the photograph: although it is hardly visible, although you have to know about it before you can almost see it, I choose to recognise in this pathetic waif something tough and resilient.
I’ve come far.