Halcyon Days

In this article, I reflect on the importance of family photographs, especially following a bereavement…

Back in June 2018, in the final weeks of my dad’s life, I made myself a promise. I pledged to return to the Western Isles to pursue some walking, cycling and photography in the peaceful, majestic landscapes of the Hebrides. I envisaged deserted beaches, secluded bays and single track roads, and putting pen to paper in the evenings, perhaps in front of a roaring log fire with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, or even a wee dram of whisky, for company.

Photo of a man in shorts with an orange rucksack sitting on a boulder with the sea, a beach and a mountain in the background
My dad, Gordon Thorburn, at Hushinish on the Isle of Harris, in 2002

These plans didn’t materialise, but I did manage to take a holiday for the first time in six months. I packed my suitcase, boarded an aeroplane and waved goodbye to Scotland as my flight disappeared into clouds over Edinburgh. The following day, I touched down on China’s east coast in Shanghai, the world’s second most populous city, home to more than 24 million people with an area covering some 6,341 sq km (2,448 sq miles). To put this into context for my fellow Scots, this is nearly five times the population of Scotland in a vast city covering an area comparable to Aberdeenshire, albeit with a somewhat faster pace of life.

Digital Detox

On this, my third trip to China to visit my brother, I wasn’t only struck by the bright lights, busy streets and awesome architecture; I was also stunned by the overwhelming dependence on mobile phones. As I experienced my own enforced digital detox, unable to access certain Western search engines and websites, and blocked from logging into my social media accounts, it seemed that everyone around me, walking the streets, taking the subway, or even riding mopeds, had mobile phones welded to their hands.

A family of six adults dressed casually sitting around a table in a Chinese restaurant holding cups with outstretched hands
The Thorburn family in China in 2016

Over the last year or so, I’ve made a conscious effort to detach myself from social media and the news. Whilst running a photography business in the twenty-first century requires me to have a strong online presence, I’ve learned to set some boundaries. Nowadays, my phone spends much of its time on silent mode, upside down on my desk, allowing me to work without interruptions. I try not to bring my phone to the dinner table, even if I’m dining alone. I’m adamant that I won’t check emails once I’ve finished work for the evening and I’ve learned not to look at social media at bedtime, to avoid the risk of seeing a post which might trigger unwanted thoughts and emotions when my mind should be winding down for sleep. The news has become a source of irritation too, with the endless stream of negative reporting, in-fighting amongst political parties, and the environment falling to the bottom of the agenda as usual.

Bereavement and photos

It was therefore something of a fluke that I stumbled across the news article and social media campaign that inspired this post. Whilst having breakfast with my mum last month, we switched on the news and were soon fighting back tears and lumps in our throats. In a welcome break from British and American politics, the presenters interviewed Professor Green about his latest single, ‘Photographs’. I’ll hold my hands up and confess that I have no idea who this guy is. I’m still playing CDs and listening to the Beatles and Beethoven. Rap music, digital downloads and streaming aren’t on my radar! Nevertheless, the sentiment behind this new release struck a chord with me, both as a photographer and as someone who has recently lost their dad a couple of decades ahead of schedule.

A young man with dark hair and a beard holding his toddler-age daughter with Edinburgh city skyline in the background
Me and my dad at Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh, in 1988

Professor Green lost his father in completely different circumstances but his lyrics, ‘I wish that I took more photographs of us’, ‘if only time was something that money could buy’ and ‘we all thought we’d live forever’, spoke to me deeply. At times, grief can feel like an isolating experience, perhaps with our nearest and dearest at different stages in the process, or with friends not appreciating the depth of the emotions involved. Social media can be a lonely place too, with virtual friendships lacking the meaning of relationships formed in the real world; with commuters on Shanghai’s subway standing side by side in silence, eyes glued to their devices; and with troubled minds gaining little solace from witnessing the edited highlights of other people’s lives. However, Professor Green’s campaign, #WishITookMorePhotographsOfUs, united social media users across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with bereaved fans keen to share their own family photographs and moving tributes to lost loved ones.

Precious memories

As my current hard drive warns me that it’s rapidly approaching capacity, and as my book cases groan under the weight of family albums, I know that I’m fortunate to have no regrets about a lack of photographs of me and my dad. I’ve you’ve read some of my older posts, you’ll know that my childhood and teenage years were filled with idyllic day trips and caravan holidays across the length and breadth of Scotland. I remained close to my parents after I left home and it was rare for more than a few weeks to go by without spending quality time together. We filled many of our days with walks and picnics, many of which were captured on camera, leaving me with a precious legacy to treasure for the rest of my life.

Father with his arm around his teenage daughter standing on a dirt track, with a river, trees and a bridge in the background
Me and my dad at Deuchny Woods near Perth in 1998

Admittedly, I wish I had more photographs of the ‘everyday’ events – keeping my dad company on trips to the hardware store; washing the car together; playing cards; and drinking cups of coffee in my parents’ living room – and I’ll forever mourn the loss of the memories that we won’t make together in years to come. Bereavement has taught me the true value of photographs. I can conjure up my dad in the blink of an eye, but nothing brings the past to life more than our family photographs and camcorder footage, and I can’t help but smile and feel comforted by these memories.

Scanning and printing photographs

I switched from film to digital in 2005 and, due to the sheer volume of additional photographs captured on digital compared to film, I quickly fell into the trap of neglecting to print my images. I miss the joy of receiving my prints back from the lab and the pleasure of meticulously labelling and filing them in albums. There is talk of the twenty-first century becoming a ‘Second Dark Ages’, with fewer than 1 in 100,000 images destined to be printed and with so much digital data set to become inaccessible in future. The most photographed generation since the advent of photography may be left with few memories to cherish in years to come.

A father with his arm around his adult daughter, standing on a sandy beach with a bay and a line of trees in the background
Me and my dad at St Andrews West Sands in 2012

I’m looking forward to having some ‘downtime’ over the coming months after a busy season with work and having been through the wringer emotionally. I won’t be watching any talent or reality shows on TV this winter or endlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. I’m planning to continue a much-loved project I began a few years ago; digitising my old prints and, simultaneously, printing digital images. My goal is to be able to share more pre-digital images online (using social media sparingly, of course!) and to create physical copies of my more recent photographs in the hope that these, along with my hand-written journals, will stand the test of time.

The past and the future

Father and daughter standing side by side in the snow in front of trees and a sign with directions to the Loch of the Lowes

I may have missed out on a healing Hebridean holiday but I’ll treat myself to that steaming mug of hot chocolate or wee dram of whisky right here in my study, surrounded by photographs from Scotland and China, and find warmth and comfort in the memories of the halcyon days of my family and in the promise of happy times to come. 

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9 thoughts

  1. I’m sorry to hear your dad passed away, and am glad you have so many photos of you together to treasure and remember.
    I’d never heard of Professor Green, so had to search for the song. I love the Rag and Bone Man, so that was a bonus. I don’t have nearly enough photos of my family because we live so far apart, and all hate having our photo taken, which makes the few I do have even more precious.
    Wishing you a peaceful and happy Christmas.

    1. Hi Su. Lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. My brother has lived abroad since 2006 and it was only after my dad passed away that I realised there weren’t many photos with the four of us in them post-2006. Like you say, it makes the photos you do have all the more precious. I hope you have a lovely Christmas and New Year and I’ll be sure to swing by your blog over the holidays to see what you’ve been up to.

  2. I should have said in my earlier comment that I was really sorry to hear about your dad. I lost my dad in April, but he was 94 (and a half – I like to add that). Your dad was not much older than me, so I really feel for you. I’m sure you will cherish his memory whether in your mind, in digital form on your laptop or via printed photographs. All the best to you and yours. Mike

    1. Thanks Mike. I’m really sorry to hear you’ve recently lost your dad too. You’ll no doubt be missing him this Christmas. Wow, 94 (and that all-important half) is impressive. Best wishes, Karen

  3. I am sorry for your loss. Grieving is a very personal journey. You have written a well thought out post with many wise words. I agree with what you say about printing our digital images. At the end of each year I try and do a photobook for my family. And something has stuck me from what you said. I include lots of photos of the kids and their Dad but so few of me as i am always taking the photos and hate having my photo taken, but I see now i am making a mistake.

    1. Lovely to hear from you and thank you for your kind words. I’ve just received a copy of a book that I saw had some great reviews on Amazon – ‘It’s OK that you’re not OK’ by Megan Devine – so I’m hoping to find some inspiration in there. An annual family photobook is a lovely idea. My husband’s like you; he hates having his photograph taken but being married to a photographer doesn’t give him much say in the matter! Be sure to pass the camera around this Christmas to get some photos of yourself. Have a lovely time over the holidays!

      1. I’ll check out that book. You enjoy Christmas too – I know it won’t be easy when you are missing you Dad.

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