“Can you spot me?”, isn’t that just what we say when we look at old school photos? So many visitors at the Museum do this when they reach the school photos in the link corridor between the Meat Market and Drill Hall. We look for ourselves or a relative, peering at the tiny faces all lined up in the images. Cross-legged or knees together with hands carefully placed on laps. Standing straight, big smile or squinting at the camera. Big tie knot, little tie knot. Fringe in the way perhaps, or was it that day when your mum made you scrape your hair into a bun? Ugh!
I’m spellbound and I’m scanning the rows of children looking for… what am I looking for? Even if I don’t know the people in the photo on the wall, I’m fascinated. Who are you? Was I like you at that age? Look at those clothes! Look at those glasses! He looks like my uncle! That building wasn’t there when I was there!
Yes, what are we looking at and looking for? The school’s official record of who was there in that year becomes a marker in our lives. It gives us a sense of achievement, perhaps a sense of place because we were there on that important day. On the day that photo was taken, that was the most learning we had experienced, the greatest variety of experiences we had been through. And even the time when it felt like the best new friendships had been forged.
I have my last school photo at Truro School taken just before A level exams. It’s hanging in my loft, loosely rolled up in its decaying brown paper envelope and clipped carefully to avoid it creasing. Whenever I come across it, I try to remember what it felt like on that day. I knew big changes in my life were coming, and this group of classmates would soon be scattered across the country. I feel less that I am looking at my past and more that I am peeking into my future. And into the futures, ambitions, and aspirations of those around me. Where are they now and have they fulfilled their dreams?
That sound like a flight of fancy, but there is one photographer who goes one step further to peer into the future with school photos. For his “Year 3” Project, Steve McQueen invited every primary school Year 3 class in London to take part in a class photo and they are displayed in Tate Britain. They make a dazzling display of the future of the city, people’s hopes and dreams, the people who will lead, depend on and evolve the capital in the years to come. Take a look at the exhibition pages here – https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/steve-mcqueen-year-3
So the next time you gaze into the past through our school photos, wonder just for a moment what those people were hoping for… those people may look like they are from the past, but you are looking at their futures…