I've been thinking, as so often in the past 20 years, about the loss of my brother John. He died in his 40th year of AIDS.
Our sister Christy took these photos, the first two in the back yard of our Farmington, New Mexico home, the third at the Salt Lake Temple.
John Berger's line—and our faces, my heart, brief as photos—takes my breath away in the same way these photos leave me breathless.
The blurriness of the first two, for whatever technical reason—Christy moving too fast? Nervous? Not used to the camera?—heightens the effect of the photo for me.
Life is tenuous. Relationships are precious and often short (John's friend died one night riding his bike from Farmington to Aztec). And what we know and don't know is difficult to sort out.
Watching from behind is our youngest brother Jeff. That's for certain. (why do we say "for" certain?) What Jeff is thinking is uncertain. The hug is playful and intimate. The setting is most unlikely for such a hug between men—a strict Mormon family and their carefully ordered and oh-so-carefully financed home. It is possible, I surmise, because of the absence of parents and the presence of adoring younger siblings.
I never saw John in such an embrace and I have a sorrowful (as opposed to guilty) sense that I never "saw" John.
The third photo: years have past since the first two photos, maybe a decade. Jeff stands to the right, still not as tall as he eventually grew. Paul, who has just been married, has his back to us in the foreground. John, looking more suave than in the earlier photos, out of backwater Farmington and living in Houston (or is he in California by this time?), in the open shirt to the left, hair darker and less curly than before, holding a camera. Wearing a hat, between John and Paul in the photo, is Grandpa Hilton.
Again the setting creates some tension. John, a lapsed Mormon, would not have been allowed inside the temple for the wedding. He has waited outside until the wedding party emerged for photos.
His clothing, his hair, even, perhaps his wary face and stance (are they wary or attentive?), announce his difference.
What does Berger's line mean in this context? Aren't the photos still here, less brief than John's face?
I'm grateful for the memories the photos evoke. I'm surprised at the windows they provide into scenes I didn't witness (why didn't I come to Paul's wedding).
John's face? Each gesture brief and enigmatic. Faces change. We change. And this may be Berger's point: the photo cuts into time to record a single, brief moment. Stopping time, each photo is a reminder of a certain future and final stoppage in time's flow: memento mori.