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Camera Lucida

The punctum of a photograph is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)

I think I can still remember your hands; the gentle warmth like a million tiny suns. My hands know you so well, the arthritis seeping through skin like roots wading through soil seeking river bed. That is to say, my hands remember you alive, blood pulsing through sinew, pulsing through to me, a sapling in forest. My hands remember you alive and breathing, and in this memory, I am your grandchild taking your photo.

When I was in university, we read paragraphs from Camera Lucida, a supposed theory of photography from Roland Barthes. What I didn't know, until many years later, when I picked up a copy for myself, that this was never about photographs or images or theories. It was a book about grief, how you can be wading through life until one day, you come across a photograph and feel transported to a time when someone you loved was alive.

In this photograph you are alive, Nanay, and I finally understand how poorly theory and words can capture this deep feeling of loss - and yet, it's all I have of you. In this photograph, you sit on an armchair smiling at me, your hands on each arm rest like branches in canopy, earnest with life.

And like Roland Barthes, the only way I can comprehend life in all its grandeur and mystery, is through theory and words. Emotion is a space I finally let my body enter once I can find the language, the ideas that frame these feelings so I have a safe cage for what I'm afraid to express. That is to say, instead of crying, I created a family tree. I traced your last name to your great, great grandmother. I found all the names of your siblings and their children and their children. I wrote the names and dates of your children and their children. I thought if I could make sense of where you came from, maybe I could let you go.

It takes 25 chapters for Roland Barthes to mention his mother, how he spent hours looking for a photo that really felt like her when she was alive. And in the end, he never set out to write a seminal theory on photography. He wrote 119 pages to understand why he was so bereft with grief when he recognised his mother in a photograph. He creates a language as to why some photographs merely interest him, in the way one studies and observes - studium - and why others - a photo of his mother - wounded him, punctured him emotionally - punctum.

In 1846, the colonisers decreed that all families in the Philippines were to choose from an approved list of Spanish last names, unless you could prove that your family had kept your last name for at least four generations.

We could.

The earliest record of Cunanan is 1715, a birth.

I drew each branch of a tree - one, two, three - that connects you to me. I traced your history back hundreds of years but it did not bring me closer to you.

In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: She is going to die: I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred.

As I approached your casket, I knew I wanted to see your hands first; to remember them - lighting a cigarette, holding a fan, picking up a cup of coffee, washing rice, fixing a stray hair. I think I still remember your hands, though the sun has set and night has draped itself around you. In this photograph, you are smiling at your grandchild and we are together, our hands within reach.

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