The lies hidden in family photographs

When my children were growing up, I took many photos of them – I had the camera on me as

When my children were growing up, I took many photos of them – I had the camera on me as much as possible. Those were some happy times I captured and I never once made them pose for a photo.

In my childhood, in the 50s and 60s, my mother would have my uncle take photos of us every year – he had a very nice and expensive camera. Every Christmas my mother, father and I would stand together, up straight, smiling broadly for the photo. But those photos were a lie, much like so many supposedly happy family portraits. Now and then, I stumble upon one in my dusty shed and wonder what my mother was thinking when she organised the shoot. Her husband was in the RAAF and was never home and presumed to be having an affair, and she had a child she didn’t like. But she wanted everyone – to keep up appearances as you did in those days. There was no such thing as a broken home, and if you had a divorce, you were an abomination.

I was speaking to my daughter yesterday and that’s where the idea for this piece came from – she wanted to get some of her wedding photos framed. She asked if I had any photos of my family and I said that I did not. I didn’t want to display a photo of my mother and father trying to make it look like we were a real family. I got pregnant at 19 and in those days, it was not something you could do as an unwed woman. I was better off dead in my mother’s eyes.

The same year, my mum stopped having family photos taken. She clearly couldn’t bring herself to have more photos of her family, now that I had disgraced them. Her husband was away constantly and having an affair? She could cover that up. Her daughter was an unwed fool? She was ashamed.

I quickly got married to the man who had gotten me pregnant, and at my wedding, it was insisted that my husband and I, plus my parents, would get a photo together. My mum put on the biggest smile I’ve ever seen, and tenderly touched me on the arm as I sat in front of her. Immediately after the photo, I remember her asking “Are we done here?” and graciously excusing herself before walking outside. She told me later that if I moved away from Canberra with my new husband, she would never speak to me again. She had an odd way of showing she loved me.

I did end up moving to Melbourne with my husband, who ended it with me a short time later after a miscarriage. I told my mother over the phone and she said “Good”, then hung up. She promptly shipped me our family photos and anything else of mine she owned. She was free of me, finally, just like she had always wanted. But so was I. I went on to meet a wonderful new husband (married 38 years now) and give birth to four children. My mother held her promise to not speak to me again but I eventually sent her a photo of the family, smiling and happy, in an unposed photograph. I hope she hung it up proudly…

Did you ever have posed family portraits that hid a secret or sadness? What do they look like? Tell us below.


Originally published here

  1. I have about half a dozen tiny black and white box camera photos in all, of my entire childhood.Not one single smile in any of them.Thank goodness Mum didn’t try to keep up appearances.Very sad,but like you I take great joy in the spontaneous capturing of a lovely moment with my kids and grandies!

  2. What an awful waste, especially for her. At times you must have needed her very much, even just to be able to pick up the phone and let her know that you and your family were doing well. It certainly was a very different time, and people were so concerned about ” what will the neighbors think”.

  3. There are always some dark secrets behind family photos,, Like girls being molested by your father all your young life.

  4. When my friends tell me how much they miss their Mothers now that they have passed, I find it difficult to relate. Like you I think my mother cared about me only when it suited her. She disliked my Father intensely and I was a reminder of him; she left us when I was 3yrs old. In her later years she wanted to play ‘happy families’, I tried but never quite managed it. I’m glad that you found a good man and raised a family of your own.

    • I can relate Susanne. My mother was an abuser. She abused my father and brother but not me. We kept the secret because we were ashamed. As an adult I challenged her about her behaviour. She was astounded that I thought she was doing anything wrong. It took a lot of Psychologists appointments for me to come to terms with her behaviour. Now I just feel sorry for her.

    • I think our experiences are lot more common than we realise ladies. I too feel sorry for my mother, mostly for the fact that she never did see her part in all of this. In her mind she was always the victim. I wish that I had gone for professional help Debbie, I know that my children, especially my daughter suffered because of my hangups.

  5. Back in the not so good old days, everything was about keeping up appearances, especially the treatment & rights of women & girls.

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