‘Do it in the dark’

In the yellow lunch box in which I collected the negatives my father left before he died, I came across a single shot cut loose from another longer line of negatives, which I sent off to be developed.

I imagine my father took this photograph in the days after he had bought a device which enabled him to take the equivalent of today’s selfies.

In this photo my father sits side on, profiled against an otherwise blank wall. He is naked except for his glasses. It’s a grainy shot and my father’s pose is typical of olden day photos in that he sits on a chair facing away from the camera with a stern expression on his face.

My eye is drawn to the thin line along his crossed leg, the way it travels across his body to emphasise the thinness of the man. And his glasses, the only other item in the photo beyond the edge of the chair, his body and the wall are dark and heavy.

His shadow falls to the front. It emphasises his profile and perhaps it’s this shadow he was trying to recreate.


I have another small photograph of my father wrapped in tissue paper for protection. It has faded with age and the image of my father in its centre is difficult to discern. I use a magnifying glass. In it, he is lounging on a cane chair in front of a bunk bed, fitted with mosquito sheets. The picture was taken by one of his fellow soldiers when my father was stationed in Java, Indonesia. At least in this photo he is not entirely naked.



To my adult self, my father’s effort at photographic art fails.

To my childhood and adolescent self, it is the image of an exhibitionist, a man who took his clothes off in front of his wife and children, not because it was hot, but in a bid to disturb them by exposing something of his sexual hunger as an act of violence, thrusting things into view that should have stayed hidden, if only from his children.

From today’s perspective nakedness is scarcely remarkable when every second image on the Internet involves some element of nakedness, or self-revelation, particularly of the female form.

The sight of a naked man, a selfie taken in the sixties or seventies, might not seem so strange, and there are plenty such photos in the books my father kept on his shelf in the days of ‘Do it in the dark’, but to me, my father’s nakedness is matched only by the shock I felt when I first discovered it and its correlates in the photos my father took of my mother, nearly naked but not quite in the Camberwell house, presumably taken some years earlier.

The fact the photo was kept hidden suggests my father wanted it that way.

Fifty years later I bring it to life and reflect yet again on my ongoing struggle with what is seen and unseen.

9 thoughts on “‘Do it in the dark’”

  1. There is something different between a reflection and a photograph. I’ve never quite understood it. I can take my tablet and turn on the camera and watch myself through the screen, my arms and legs, whatever’s within its range, and it’s not quite the same as simply looking down. Is it the frame I wonder? Frames redefine things. Even this text has a frame around it. I could say the words aloud and they should actually be more expressive because I can add a second layer of meaning with my delivery but by typing them out they’re afforded a permanence; it’s a trade-off.

    I don’t really get the whole selfie craze. I have taken photos of myself and I don’t hate the end results—I think I’m reasonably photogenic—but these days I only do it if I have a reason. When my daughter received her degree as you know I paid for a photographer to take a picture of the two of us together and it was important that I was in the picture too. I had to record my pride. And as it happens I was able to snip my head out of one of the other photographs and that’s what’s on Facebook now as my profile picture. I took a few snaps of myself about six months back with an eye to changing the one on Facebook—and maybe even the author photo on my books—but although there were a couple that were okay I wasn’t impressed enough to do anything with them but while I had them I could look at them and it is interesting being able to scrutinise your own face like that. What do I see in those eyes?

    I’m not vain enough to pose nude. I’d not thought about it but I’d be curious to see what I looked like—we don’t actually have a full mirror in the house—but I’m not sure I’d keep the thing although the simple fact is I can’t remember what I looked like nude twenty or thirty years ago and a part of me would be interested to see. The simple fact is, as is the case with most of us, I’ve never seen myself naked very often. I’ve been naked often enough—thousands of times—but mostly when dressing or bathing. I do remember when I got my own flat I wandered from room to room without any clothes on just for the sake of it and it was nowhere near as much fun as I’d hoped it might be. But there was some fun in it.

    Why would your dad take that photo? For the moment or for the future? He’s not here to ask and all we can do is wonder.

    1. I agree, ‘Frames redefine things’, Jim, and the perspective on offer can be quite different depending not only on the writer’s chosen frame but also on that of the reader. As a man, it’s perhaps a generalisation that you’d see what I’ve written here quite differently from a woman. And of course not all men and women and all genders in between see things purely out of their gender. But I’m sure gender at some level influences us.
      I remember my analyst once said to me something along the lines:In some families it’s quite the norm for a parent to walk around naked and no one bats an eyelid because the parent’s nakedness is not provocative. It’s not intended to disturb.
      It might disturb especially when kids reach adolescence and parents usually get the message then to cover up and to allow for a level of privacy. But when there are hidden communications in the decision to walk around starkers then something else is going on.
      Thanks, Jim.

  2. Your father sounds inhumane, Elisabeth—I hope you don’t mind me saying that. I’m intrigued by your stories about him in the way one watches a horror movie. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to have grown up with someone so sexually explicit as a parent—it must have been so frightening. How you and your siblings coped, I don’t know.
    I love the way you write and that you are writing about it, as if trying to make sense of it—Do you know what made him so horrible?

    1. My father was a product of multiple traumas, Louise. And in that I don’t hold him entirely responsible for the things he did. He, too came from an abusive family. His father abused his daughters, my father’s sisters. And then as a young man my father fought in the second world war, as his father had also fought in the first world war. That could not have helped either man. Of course there’s more than this. Not all men traumatised by war go on to sexually abuse their children, though many become abusive. I’ve written about this in a paper wherein I describe something of the links and causes, if you’re interested. https://www.academia.edu/19878855/Trauma_in_21_st_Century
      Thanks, Louise.

      1. I will read it, Elisabeth—maybe tomorrow as it’s late now and I should already be in bed!
        It’s hard to fathom how a human being can become so brutal, but there’s always a reason—people aren’t born like it. War does horrible things to people—as Bessell van der Kolk said, ‘We don’t do killing well.’
        For you and your siblings, there was no escaping a parent, though. That’s the tragedy.

  3. From many conversations with other women, I believe a lot of men have a fascination or fantasy about naked photos of their partners. The ‘sexting’ phenomenon today seems to be a bastardised interpretation of this, or perhaps we are not teaching self-respect the same way.
    There can be a very fine line between art and erotica and sex and sensuality which is also poorly interpreted by some.
    I can only imagine how confusing it must have been for you and your siblings trying to make sense of the mixed messages from your father and society, especially in the emerging world of free love and liberation that we both grew up in.

  4. I agree with you about the fine line between art, erotica and pornography, but it all muddles me, Karen, in part because it is muddling and in part because of my earlier experiences.
    The explicit sexuality from my father was troublesome, but add to that the repressive nature of a Catholic education and my mother’s inhibitions, you have a pull in different directions. Very confusing indeed.
    Thanks, Karen.

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