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How to Discover Yourself by Exploring Your Past

Here's the clever way a London photographer did, plus tips for you

By Donna Sapolin

Those of us who experience sharp transitions in life know that they can make us feel as if we’ve walked through a doorway as one person but come out an entirely different one. While some people are able to immediately understand the nature and magnitude of the transformation they’ve undergone, most need the perspective of time and a protracted period of contemplation to fully comprehend what’s transpired.

Many, of course, see no reason at all to "delve into the past," and consequently avoid thinking about it. But later adulthood is often accompanied by a desire to uncover and make sense of life’s turning points.

As I recently wrote in the Next Avenue piece, 5 Things Older Prisoners Want You to Know, it’s not uncommon to think about how life might have gone had we made different choices. It's also not unusual for us to revisit events that we had little or no control over and assess how they changed — or didn’t change — us and contemplate the slate of “what ifs” related to those episodes.

Big geographical moves in childhood can be an example of shifts we don’t choose to make happen. They typically wield an enormous impact and the effects can be hard to handle and process. We’re forced to cope with a new place, people, customs and perhaps even a new language while also contending with the natural disruptions of adolescence or other key life stages.

(MORE: 6 Reasons Not to Retire Abroad)

Imagine Finding Me

Fine art photographer Chino Otsuka, who was born in Tokyo and moved to London when she was 10 years old, has focused on discovering the meaning of her own monumental move and understanding how it shaped her. To clarify her blurred and blended personal identity, she created Imagine Finding Me, a composite photo series in which she applied digital techniques to existing shots of her younger self, placing within them images of her older self at various ages.

With this work, Otsuka has redefined the popular self-portrait genre, creating a seamless autobiographical narrative that links the past to the present.

Utilizing old images culled from a family photo album that depicted journeys she made with her parents during childhood, the Imagine Finding Me series comprises 12 double self-portrait photographs. All explore themes of memory and cast light on notions of displacement as well as on the artist’s sense of belonging.

“The digital process becomes a tool, almost like a time machine, as I’m embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history,” she says.

Aesthetic composition is important to her, but prompting viewers of her work to connect emotionally with various versions of themselves and encouraging the exploration of their own memories is just as vital. In a photo book of the Imagine Finding Me images, Otsuka poetically captures her main intent — self discovery. “I’m travelling back…and on arrival I find myself from the past,” she writes. Here are a few examples:

1975 & 2009, France

1977 & 2009, France

1979 & 2006, Japan

1981 & 2006, Japan


1982 & 2005, France

1985 & 2006, UK

(MORE: 4 Smart Ways to Leave a Legacy)

5 Ways You Can Explore the Past to Discover Yourself

Here are five ways that you can assemble the puzzle of your past to gain a firmer grip on who you’ve become while also deriving the well-established benefits of nostalgia:

1. Explore your ancestry and heritage through genealogical research.

2. Comb through your old photos and ask your family and friends questions about their stories and memories related to the depicted events, locations and personalities. Also, consider recording their comments and writing them down so you can revisit and think about them.

3. Visit the places where you once lived — countries, cities, towns and homes. Don’t be shy about knocking on doors and asking the present owners of your past residences if you can tour them. Jot down your immediate perceptions of the places you visit and/or speak your thoughts into an audio recorder.

4. Launch your own photo project to probe your life transitions and identity. Take picturess related to the significant shifts you’re facing that you can analyze more deeply later. Also, snap present-day versions of older shots associated with a particularly meaningful time of your life, then pair the new and old together and see what thoughts the side-by-side comparisons evoke.

5. Carve out time to process a critical period in your life by writing about it in a private journal. Select the pivotal episodes, sit quietly and write freely, without regard for style or structure. This activity is about digging deep and seeing what comes up naturally.

Video Credits

Director: Nico van den Brink
Producer: Woolf Franssen
Camera: Emo Weemhoff
Sound: Django Kroon
Montage: Inez Poortinga

Donna Sapolin is the Founding Editor of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia. Read More
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