In Paris, during a recent visit, I find myself thinking about my father’s hands. Walking along the streets and watching thousands of tourists using their digital cameras, I remember the way my father held his old Kodak when he took photographs. He would hold the camera near his stomach and bow his head in order to look at the little prism on the left side of the camera’s accordion-like body. Many years later, after he died, I learned that he had held it near one of the important chakras, the vital points in human body where energy flows in or out, or just sits there waiting to be used. Had I known it earlier, I would not have felt ashamed when he made my sister and me stand motionlessly in front of an old synagogue somewhere in Israel. Tourists around us had shiny new cameras, and some even sported Polaroids that to me looked like things from another planet. In fact, we were from another planet, from a Communist country lost in the Balkan wilderness. It was the summer of 1961, and we were visiting Israel for the first time.
By the time we visited Israel again, in the early seventies, the old Kodak was forgotten in a drawer of my father’s night table. He had a new camera, and when he wanted to take a photograph he would lift it up, put his eye to the viewfinder and press the button. His arms were bent and his elbows spread apart, and it looked as if the camera were at the apex of a triangle. Compared to the previous position, this one seemed somehow tense and strenuous. The arrangement of arms, hands and camera that reminded me of Buddha had disappeared, and it seemed to me that the camera could slip from my father’s fingers at any moment and break into pieces.
Today one rarely sees the arms, hands and camera form that shape any more, but my father did not live to witness the change. Thousands of tourists stand around Paris holding their digital cameras in their outstretched hands. It looks as if they are holding them at bay, afraid that the cameras might attack them if they bring them any closer to their faces. I imagine my father with a digital camera: holding it out in front of him in his hands, with his feet spread in order to keep his balance, he looks at the image on the display screen. His stomach is protruding and his grey hair moves in the wind. He looks uncomfortable, and after a while he turns toward me and says that his arms are tired. This is not a natural position, he tells me, and I nod enthusiastically, take the camera from him and put it away. A perfectly natural position, I say to myself, has turned into a perfectly unnatural one. Once so close to the centre of our body, a camera is now held far away from it. We do not want to be touched any more, scream our arms as they push digital cameras far, far away from our bodies as if seeking their own private space.
In a certain sense I am glad that my father has not lived to see that. He loved his old Kodak and bought the new camera only to please us. He kept his Kodak in the drawer of his night table, and he took it out from time to time in order to wipe its folds and lenses, check the shutter release and film winder. Had we asked him, he would have taken more photographs with it, but we didn’t. We let time slip by, the way most of us do, believing that life has no end, that everybody around us will live forever—not because of them, of course, but because of us. We are the ones whom we want to be immortal. But instead of eternal life we are left with piles of photographs. They are our lives, and in times of destruction the first thing we try to save is the family album. (Albums have been replaced by laptops, I guess, but somehow I cannot envision long lines of refugees carrying them around. A laptop is dead after a few hours, but you can look at your photographs forever.)
So, in Paris I think about my father’s hands. He had gentle, almost transparent hands, ghostly white, because being a medical doctor, a gynecologist, he washed and scrubbed them a hundred times a day. I remember that his Kodak is still somewhere in our family apartment in Zemun, near Belgrade. In fact, I know the exact place where I left it the last time I moved the furniture around. I leave Paris and its tourists, and go to Belgrade. The moment I enter our apartment I run to the closet where I keep things that have become useless: old record players, transistor radios, phones, an answering machine, two toasters—and my father’s Kodak. It is still in its original case with a tiny lock. Why would anybody lock his camera? And what had happened to the key? I don’t recall Father locking and unlocking it, and I have never seen such a tiny key in our apartment. I open the case, pull out the old Kodak and press a button on the side. The camera unfolds in its full glory. It looks exactly the way I remember it. I try to hold it as my father did, right in front of my stomach, and look at the prism on its left side. I am not used to it, and at first I see nothing. Then, slowly, objects start to appear—I can see the paintings on the walls, the books on the shelves, old chairs, a vase with pink plastic flowers—but they are still blurry, out of focus. I turn around, wipe the prism with my handkerchief, move closer to the window in order to get more light and, when the picture inside the little prism finally becomes clear and sharp, I am not surprised to see my father. He is sitting in the corner, smiling, and when he notices me, he raises his arm and waves to me. And his hand is as white as it has always been.