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16th February

Closer to the core

I recently went through a box of old photos and my attention was drawn to some my mother took when I was around two years old. I was still the only child, though four more were to come. But in that moment, both her attention and her camera were focussed on me.

In one of the photos, I stand on tiptoe to look over the low hedge of our garden giving way to an empty street and not yet developed fields. On the back of the photo, my mother had written: “July 1956, Han likes to see what’s going on.”

On the other photos I was equally engaged, building a sandcastle in my sandpit, watering the flowers in the garden with a watering can that was almost too big for me to carry, dragging a chair from one part of the terrace to the other.

Nowhere did I sit still and look at the camera. I like to think  that my mother aimed to take photos of her children without our noticing so that she could capture us as we were rather than stiff and posed. When we as children felt free.

When looking at the photos taken later, I cannot help but think that throughout the years, layers were put over that core freedom.

In school photos I always stood in the back, often with a rather shy smile. In a photo taken with my brothers and sister together with my father and a person in a Fred Flintstone costume, I look dour and worried despite the playful surroundings. I remember that my mother had stayed home that Sunday afternoon because she wasn’t feeling very well; a year later she would die. In another photo, taken when I was sixteen, I unsuccessfully tried to imitate the French Nouvelle Vague actor Jean-Pierre Léaud with a cigarette dangling quasi-nonchalant from my mouth. It helps to look at these old photos to get an idea of who I was then, before life crowded in and I learned to close off.

Over the past years I’ve made an effort to peel off the layers that were added in order to live up to the expectations of the people around me, whether in my family, at school, or in the wider world. I try to shed the layers that were added because I wanted to comply with an image of myself that I fabricated. It helps to look at these old photos to get an idea of who I was then.

Just like my mother did sixty-seven years ago, I would like to think that this curious two-year-old boy standing on tiptoe to look over the hedge is who I truly am. I still like to see what’s going on.

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