Identity and Photography

Curwood Castle, Owosso, MI © 2013 Michael Maurer Smith

I have taken many photographs in and around Owosso, the town in which I grew up. And though mine had not been an easy or happy life growing up here, I believed then I knew who I was and how I’d come to be. When I made those photographs I saw them through the eyes of my self identity—confident that I understood the relevance and meaning of what I was seeing, doing and photographing.

My mother died in 2018 but throughout her life she never wavered in her claim that E.M. was my father. He is listed as such on my birth certificate. But my mother and he never married and he played no part in my upbringing. I never knew E.M., and the only time I ever saw him was as he lay in state in the funeral home. I was 23 then, and I am 69 now.

This summer (2019), I took two of the most popular DNA tests, hoping to learn more about my ethnic heritage and my father’s history. I’d hoped to learn who my half siblings, grandparents and cousins were, however, my results showed no convincing connections with E.M., or any of his relatives. But, without going into detail, I was subsequently put in contact with E.M.’s son James and he agreed to take DNA tests from the same companies I had, to determine if we were half brothers and shared the same father. It turned out we are not related at all, thereby proving E.M. is not my father. Moreover, other DNA evidence soon corroborated this. My mother had been mistaken or she had lied.

This revelation was a blow to my sense of identity. And now when I look at pictures I had made in and around Owosso they seem a kind of betrayal and mockery. What other secrets, I wonder, still hide in those images?

Since learning that E.M. was not my father I’ve visited Owosso a couple of times. Each time I brought a camera with me, thinking I might walk about and make a few photographs. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Owosso, has for me, become a ghost town filled with reminders of past lies, deceits and disappointments.

A photograph may be an accurate recording of how the moment/object/subject appeared before the lens but it can never penetrate to the actual truth behind the appearance. At best it may point in the direction of the truth(s).

Before I knew that E.M. was not my father I had taken photographs of his gravesite and the house he lived in Owosso, when he was a boy. Those pictures remain unchanged in appearance but what they mean to me now is radically different. Before, they were a visible connection to the man I believed was my father. Now they have become artifacts that remind me of who I once thought I was, but wasn’t.

The photographer then is well advised to remember that the photograph he or she makes is never the truth that lies behind the image, or hidden in it. Moreover, that truth and meaning is subject to change when new facts become known.

One thought on “Identity and Photography

  1. Mike, this is truly beautiful and thought provoking. It’s interesting to ponder meanings and how they might change in light of other circumstances or events. But it was and remains your boyhood home, whether or not the other circumstances changed. And that’s something.

    I couldn’t find a box on the photo mart post but I really liked it. You’re right — it’s the sense of community. Those things seem to be missing. (And one reason why I don’t use self check-out…)

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