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  • Katie Calautti

Behind My Father's Lens

I think my dad could've been a photographer if he'd let himself.

Or maybe a historian or veterinarian. But not a bored, dissatisfied financial planner. That was just what he'd been told to do—his learned experience was that the definition of "work" was "toil" and the price of existence was practicality. Inspiration was to be relegated to the fringes of life—to the tiny sparks of light that flash in the stolen moments spent striking flint within its shadowed corners.

Perhaps if he hadn't died of pancreatic cancer when he was 54, the wisdom of advanced age would've softened his stringent outlook and he would've explored the subjects that spoke to his soul, wondered why he hadn't pursued them in earnest sooner.

Shortly after he passed in 2004, dad's trusty, ancient Pentax film camera was packed among my belongings when I moved to New York City. I had no idea how to use it and even less patience to learn, but to me, it symbolized a dream deferred by my father's self-set limitations. For over 16 years, it's occupied a shelf of my home, watching over me like a cracked-leather-covered cautionary tale as I've doggedly worked to forge a fulfilling life doing what I love.

In August 2019, after mounting struggles with depression and suicidal ideation led me to upend my city life of almost 15 years and move it to the country, my friend Diana—a professional photographer—plucked the Pentax from a box, flipped a few levers, and said, "Oh, there's a roll of film in here!" I uttered some casual intention to have it developed, then stuffed it in a cabinet. Truth be told: I was terrified, and I wanted to ignore it. But like some reanimated tell-tale heart, it's ticked away from behind the painted wood facade. You tick cannot tick be tick fulfilled tick without tick exploring tick the tick unfulfilled.

Today was as good a day as any to take it out.

I brought the camera to a local photography shop, where they safely removed the film and gave me a slip of paper with a number on it, saying they'd call me in one to two days when the prints were ready.

I hadn't accounted for the waiting. For my storyteller brain's initial rush of adrenaline, then the resulting hypoglycemic crash of my analytical mind. Would I find a decades-old message in the images? Or something scandalous or upsetting? Would the photos send me into a tailspin of grief? Or would they simply be a benign set of shots that I'd endlessly assign meaning to? The only answer that stilled me was: whatever you're presented with is a gift from dad. Receive it.

Five hours later, I checked my phone and saw I'd missed a call. It was from the photography shop—the clerk had left me a message.

We ran your roll of film through, and unfortunately, it is blank...

Blank: the one outcome I hadn't considered. Blank like my father's future.

It felt like losing him all over again. The whole second half of a life, coiled and forever waiting to be exposed.

But then I remembered my affirmation: a gift, receive it.

I will not develop my father's negatives. I have exposed them to the light.


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