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Suszynski: Sound bites

I wake up to a WhatsApp voice message from my friend Danna who lives in Cairo. I press play and her voice filters, as if grainy, into my kitchen in Vail. The day before I had left her a message with a passage in a book I am reading.

The book is “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli. The passage goes like this: “Something changed in the world. … We feel time differently. … Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable. And without future, time feels like an accumulation. An accumulation of months, days, natural disasters, television series, terrorist attacks, divorces, mass migrations, birthdays, photographs, sunrises.”

At first, I can’t hear Danna’s voice. There is a muffling in the background that sounds like many cars passing by. Then a succession of honks, and I suddenly feel the sidewalk below her. She tells me: “It feels like given the insaneness of everything, we have run out of ways to describe new intensities.”



In the book, a family of four embarks upon an adventure from New York to Arizona. The parents are both working on their own documentation projects as sound recorders. The mother gifts her son a Polaroid camera. At first, they can’t figure out why the photographs are coming out milky white, but there is a lovely passage when the boy finally produces a picture: “A perfect little document, rectangular and in sepia: two unleaded gasoline dispensers and, in the background, a row of Appalachian pine trees, no kudzu. An index, not so much of the things photographed but of the instant the boy finally learned to photograph them.”

In college, my friend gifted me a Diana Mini Lomography camera. I haphazardly photographed scenes, people, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo giraffes, over the period of a year. When I picked up the developed film, I was disappointed in my clear lack of skill but fascinated by what things I had captured.



“Perhaps I should say that documenting is when you add thing plus light, light minus thing, photograph after photograph; or when you add sound, plus silence, minus sound, minus silence. What you have, in the end, are all the moments that didn’t form part of the actual experience,” the mother says.

I scroll through the archive of voice messages between Danna and me. On Feb. 25, Danna left me a message of “Thursday morning chirps.” I can tell that she is sitting in her apartment, high above the street. I can’t quite picture where the birds are situated, but a chorus of musical sounds, dwindling into what I imagine to be a sunny sky, greets me. Toward the end of the recording, I hear the far-off conversations of people familiar with each other. Arabic echoing off the city walls.

In January, she recorded a two-minute sound clip. It begins with the grumble of a motorbike, she pipes in and asks if I heard the train go by and then grows quiet again. In between these messages, I send her the guttural drip of the ice melting from the roof. I walk outside and try to capture the sound of my feet puncturing holes in the snow. And later, on the chairlift, I hold my phone up to the lift towers as I pass them by.

The boy interrupts his mom’s contemplations on documentation to ask what he should focus on when taking a Polaroid. She falls into contemplation again, “maybe the boy’s frustration at not knowing what to take a picture of, or how to frame and focus the things he sees as we all sit inside the car, driving across this strange, beautiful, dark country, is simply a sign of how our ways of documenting the world have fallen short.”

Finally, she answers him: “You just have to find your way of understanding the space, so the rest of us can feel less lost in time.”

When I got the roll of film back, I realized that I took the camera to Las Vegas for a class. There is a photo of a classmate in a dark room, lights bounced off the black interior and onto her face. But this photo halfway overlaps with one I took of my parent’s neighbor. Two ducks perch on her shoulders, a basket of their eggs in her hand. These photos were superimposed on one another, like the two memories colliding, even though their settings, their sounds, are from opposite worlds.

What to focus on? Even if I focus on something now, say the ducks or the lights on a still face, I will notice a different aspect in the future: The eggs are about to roll out of the basket, my classmate is not looking at me, but at somebody just past my shoulder. If time is accumulating, bunching up like rumpled sheets, then one day, when we decide to make the bed, we’ll have to smooth out the wrinkles. Wrinkles always leave such temporary scars on that still surface.

When I look back on the photos I have taken in the past year, they are mostly of empty space. Like I am watching for people to reenter these frames. Patiently, with all their sound.


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