Tracey Emin: My Life in a Column

'Twenty grubby little kids from Margate going off-piste in the Tyrol. And here's the evidence'
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The Independent Online

Today I hate my life. I have spent the last week or so totally immersed and dragged down by my past. The "past" being around 5,000 photographs strewn across my painting-room floor on a large plastic sheet. Piles and piles of snapshots, Polaroids, negatives, photobooth photos - all displaying various tones of sepia and ageing. A good 43 years' worth of moments of my life caught on camera. But not just my life - friends, acquaintances and a whole section called "The Miscellaneous Unknowns".

I'm trying to compartmentalise my life, with sections such as: "Denmark Art Trip 1995", "Being Happy in Toronto 1997", and "Wild time in New York 1998", next to a giant section of "Me and Carl in Greece 1994/1995/1996".

In between these memories, there are whole sections of my life that just don't seem to appear. The times in my life when there wasn't a camera around - mainly when I was a little girl. We just didn't have the money for a camera and film, I suppose. And when I think about it, that's why it's so important to have that annual school photograph taken. My favourite school photo ever was a group shot of the girls' football team. We were 10. Our strip was red and white. I was the goalkeeper and sported a number 11.

We had the most brilliant teacher. His name was Mr Folkard. And to prove how much respect we had for him, purely on the basis that he totally revolutionised our education, no one, not once, ever referred to him as Mr Fuckard. Apart from one girl, whose name I can't remember, who affectionately wrote a story about him and accidentally spelt his name incorrectly all the way through. At which Mr Folkard had the great pleasure in reading out the story to us, while coughing every time at the appropriate spelling mistake. A 40-strong class of 10-year-olds on their knees giggling, wheezing with laughter.

Our classroom was a Portakabin on the school field. It used to be called a "mobile". When someone was late it was always a dramatic scene as they would have to run across the school playground, and you could feel their state of panic as they bolted up the Portakabin stairs. I have a clear vivid memory of Maria being late and Mr Folkard shouting: "Maria Tantony! If you are late one more time I'm going to pick you up, hang you on that coat peg, rip off your arm, and beat you with the soggy end!" Not a dry eye in the house.

Mr Folkard did many brilliant things. God knows what inspired him, but one day he decided we should all go on a ski trip to Austria. Twenty grubby little kids from Margate going off-piste in the Tyrol. What was so genius about this whole thing was that for two months before we went, every Wednesday evening, we did ski exercises followed by a German lesson. Ein, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn, elf, zwölf, etc, etc... Guten Morgen, or guten Abend mein Freund, Independent reader. I don't need to impress you any more, but I remember every bloody word he taught us. And to cap it all I have a certificate somewhere, with my name on, to say I am qualified to ski on any slope in Austria.

The only sad thing about the whole trip was that I wet the bed. And because I was sharing a room with four other girls, I was really scared they would find out. So I took the sheet off the bed in the middle of the night and hid it in a chest of drawers. Every morning, I would make sure I was the last person to leave the room, which would give me enough time to tear off part of the sheet and stuff it in my anorak. On my way trundling up the slope I would stop and pretend to do up my shoelaces and, like a badger, within two seconds I had buried the sheet in the snow.

It's amazing what we remember when we look at a photo. One minute the joy and laughter, the next the sadness and depression of a 10-year-old girl. I even have a section of photographs called "Dead People". I'm convinced that some of the memories we hold from childhood only exist because of a photo we have. True memory and inflicted memory - or, not to be so harsh - provoked or procured memory, are very different things.

I remember a tutor at the Royal College of Art, Keith Critchlow, who funnily enough was one of the founder members of Forgotten Knowledge. (For those of you out there who don't know what that is, it's a group of people who are interested in the things that we used to know that we don't know any more, in terms of our collective knowledge. For example, how far away mountains are, the shape of the Milky Way - just general things that we ought to know, such as sacred geometry and a natural awareness of space.) Anyway, I remember he said to me: "Tracey, if you can't draw it, take a photograph." A piece of advice I really listened to, because the photographic evidence of my life really did start in 1989.

And now it's in my studio. Scattered across the floor and it's making me feel really sick. Full up and nauseous. Because somehow it all seems too much and in another way I think: is this all there is? It's a general feeling of dissatisfaction and loss with myself. Maybe it's because they are all images. When I miss someone, it's not their face I want to see, it's their breath I want to feel and their voice I want to hear. All the photos in the world cannot make up for that. I miss you, past - come back!