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  • The boxes had been in storage of one sort or another for years. They smelled of closed cupboards and bottom shelves and dark garage corners. You set the boxes on the desk and brought out blue and yellow and once-upon-a-time clear plastic containers full of slides.

    “My father took them.” You picked out one and held it gently.

    I asked when.

    “He left school after Standard 8,” you mused, “you know, Grade 10 now. His father decided he needed a job so off he went to work on the Kariba Dam. He got the camera after that, so from the mid-fifties until about the 80s.”

    I imagined him heading out, well, nudged along, at age 16, for what was then Northern Rhodesia, to be part of the Kariba Dam project.

    The pictures spanned over 30 years documenting a personal and particular perspective of the construction of the dam to become Lake Kariba, then construction in Swaziland and family life in South Africa.

    We held the small transparencies up to the desk lamp. I saw from the outside a tapestry of scenes and characters. You exclaimed, identifying places and figures, bringing memories to life and me along.

    Over the years they had migrated from ordered rank in casings to an almost grab bag mix of slices of life. Wedding pictures bumped elbows with beach holidays. Children grew and shrank alarmingly, like Alice in freeze-frame.

    “There I am,” you exclaimed. “See, with my upside down Viking horns. My Dad nicknamed them that.”

    I squinted, delighted at the chance to meet you then. I grinned, recognizing this picture of defiance in a red dress. The same square to the camera determination in shoulders, brow and stance then as now.

    “My mother preferred me in red.” You frowned.

    “And dresses,” I grinned more widely still.

    “But I had my shorts on underneath,” you giggled.

    In each slide a unique slice of character, place and time are preserved. They make a record infused with a wealth of unintentional detail. They draw back time’s curtain.

    Along with the slides were 8 boxes of 8mm film coiled like slim shiny snakes on their reels.

    “Dad started taking them at the dam,” you explained. “It wasn’t when he first got there, at the dam. We’ll have to ask him, but it was before he met my mother in Swaziland. They were 22 or 23 then.”

    I looked at slides spread out across the desk. They made a mosaic of a life, of a family and, if looked in a wider context, of a nation, a continent, an era.

    Ironically, in a time obsessed with capturing and memorializing moments, when we are swamped by a rising sea of images posted and pinned, blogged and re-blogged, we are most at risk of losing even the relatively recent past. The very technologies that allow us to click and save every last detail of events large and exceedingly small have changed so rapidly that images and memories collected with older technologies have become not only obsolete but near inaccessible. Thus the technologies that were the latest, keenest cutting edge in their time now lie, mostly forgotten, in scuffed cardboard boxes on bottom shelves and in dark garage corners. The slides are not just physically fragile in their mountings but are fading from view, as the technology that made them and makes them accessible becomes more and more a relic. Whole collections are endangered. In danger of becoming invisible, lost, inaccessible to us in our visually noisy now. Lost to us, lost to our children, lost to all who might look and wonder.

    “Maybe,” I wondered.

    “Maybe,” you continued. “Maybe they could be copied onto a DVD.”

    I went to Q-Photo the next day, asking, “Maybe, maybe you can copy them onto a DVD?”

    A young guy with one earing and a spiked crest of hair took a bored look at the box of slides. “Ja, we can do that.”

    “There’s these too,” I added, holding up a 8mm case.

    He stopped counting slides and opened the small case and held the spool of film delicately.

    “They’re from when they built the dam wall for Lake Kariba up in what was Northern Rhodesia, and some other footage in Swaziland back in the 60s. My…, my….. Her father took them. He was barely more than a kid but he’s never seen them.” I figured he’d need an explanation to justify taking them all and bringing them into the digital age. I was ready for an easy and dismissive ‘been there, done that, seen it all before’ attitude.

    “I’d love to see that,” he enthused.

    “It matters,” I agreed. “I mean, saving them.”

    “I’ll save them. They’ll be ready in a week,” he promised. “May I please have a copy? I’d like to have…” he stopped. “You know, something from then… from before.” He stopped again and gestured at the mall, the parking lot and I am not sure what all else, but I knew what he meant.

    When I renovated my parent’s house I uncovered old photographs on glass and metal plates lost for generations behind the walls. I didn’t know the people in the pictures. I didn’t need to. They spoke to me of their times. The images we catch and capture have that power, to speak to us of other times: Times different and times before. In and through them we can trace our past. These concrete images give a solid foundation for memories. Lose them and the focus, the resolution, the composition, our very sense of place and purpose blurs and dims. Without them we stand diffused.
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