Human memory is imprecise and reconstructive. The act of remembering is a an ongoing sensory process that is continually informed by memory triggers from past events as well as new experiences and and the moods surrounding them. In looking at photographs of ourselves (or events that we were a part of) we engage in the constant recreation of the shifting narratives of our lives as past events are re-filtered through newer/recent experiences. Most of our memory narratives are not fully formed or even coherent, peppered with inconsistencies, omissions and modifications. Memory is fluid. Photographs are static.
The study of memory — in particular its paradoxes and ambiguities — is trendy these days. In an article in Psychology Today titled It’s Magical, It’s Malleable … It’s Memory, writer Jill Neimark observes: “It’s as if we’ve awakened, at the turn of the millennium, and realized that memory is the bedrock of the self — and that it may be perpetually shifting and terrifically malleable. That image of memory, whose river runs into tabloids and traumas, seems both terrifying and baptismal. If we can repress life-shaping events (such as sexual or physical abuse), or actually invent memories of events that never happened (from UFO abductions to rapes and murders), memory carries a power that promises to utterly reshape the self.”
Photography plays an interesting role in the never-ending creation and modification of memories. With time washing over us like a stream, never ceasing, photographs present a way to stop it. A photograph freezes a split second within the neat confines of a square, and the flow of time becomes a very thin-slice “document” plucked from the rush of seconds, moments, years streaming by endlessly. When considering a photograph as a document — essentially a piece of disembodied truth — there is value in deconstructing the medium, breaking down in detail the various subjective choices that the photographer makes as the shutter is clicked.
In most cases, a photographic print is a piece of paper (or it may just exist digitally, glowing on a computer screen or smartphone); either way, it is flat, generally square, and two-dimensional. When something is photographed, it is morphed into a photographic format in five ways: in terms of flatness, camera angle/vantage point, frame, time, and focus. On one level, every photograph is a truth — but it is just a small sliver of a much larger truth, a mere split second frozen in time. When a photographer makes an image that becomes a part of a larger photo story, that split second takes on added weight and meaning, always decontextualized to some extent. That single split second—with the light just so, or that fleeting expression dancing across the subject’s face, or a specific gesture — begins to embody the larger story. A point of view is injected. A commentary. It speaks to the photographer’s perception — it is what the photographer drew out of that scene and the larger sequence of events. It’s always subjective. And yet, even as memory shifts with time, the subjectively made photograph remains still and static. With time, as a viewer returns to study a photographic image it gives new shape to his/her ongoing memory narrative, much in the same that a rock, still in a river, affects the flow of water moving around it.
Another trend: As photographers continue to redefine their relationship with objectivity and subjectivity as it relates to reportage, photographic storytellers are becoming less concerned with depicting events as they occur in real-time; in many ways, the new frontier for photographic documentarians is the invisible yet strangely palpable realm of the mind. In other words, there is an emerging trend towards documenting — or trying to document — the intangible realm of thought processes and memory. It makes sense — after all, long after the chaos of an unfolding event has passed it all lingers on in the slowly shifting shadows of memory, assuming deepening significance with the passing of time.
When we remember anything we draw upon the five senses — the very act of remembering is a full convergence of sensory input. We are always engaged in memory reconstruction, all lacking firm endings; memories are continually re-defined as new memories and expectations form. Of course, we don’t have time machines, and we can’t exactly photograph our thoughts, but given that memories play a tremendous role in how we understand our lives and the world around us, it makes sense that there are photographers who are experimenting with documenting memories. As Daphna Shohamy, a researcher at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, explains: “Moment by moment, memories create the structure of who we are.”