Photographs and Memories

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Mark Z, Jul 2, 2018.

  1. In her memoir, Sally Mann writes about her memory of the artist Cy Twombly, and how vivid and detailed her memories are, despite not photographing him often. She says "I am convinced that the reason I can remember him so clearly and in such detail is because I have so few pictures of him." She contrasts this with her memories of her father: "Because of the many pictures I have of my father, he eludes me completely. In my outrageously disloyal memory he does not exist in three dimensions, or with associated smells or timbre of voice. He exists as a series of pictures....I don't have a memory of the man; I have a memory of a photograph." In this video she talks about the same thing:

    The way photographing can affect memory has been studied recently, and the phenomenon of not remembering well what was photographed has been given the name photo-taking-impairment effect.

    Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo-Taking-Impairment Effect - ScienceDirect

    The authors of that article believe there is such a phenomenon, and they speculate on the causes of it. It makes me wonder if prior to the popularity of photography if people's memories were somehow better. Could it be that if we want to remember something - a scene or a person - we'd be better off putting down the camera and concentrating more on what our senses are telling us? (I've read that Laura Ingalls Wilder was able to remember scenes from her childhood so well in part because she often verbally described them to her blind sister Mary. That would take a measure of observation and study that may not have occurred if she had been making photographs instead.)

    I'm curious about your personal experience with this. When you remember places and people and events, are your memories more vivid for those times when you did not photograph them? Do you feel like you remember photographs rather than actual events? Do you suspect that you "offload" your memories to the prosthetic memory of a camera?
  2. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    I feel completely different. I wish I had lots of photos of my father and my brother Joey. My father died when I was 15, and my ten year old brother died two months later of cancer. We had 8 mm movies of my brother, but since my father took them, he wasn't in any. After my dad died, we had other things to spend money on rather than keeping the projector running with its expensive bulbs.
    stuart_pratt and michaellinder like this.
  3. For me, at least, my photos of places and people are like the madeleine in Proust's Remembrance.

    In looking at them, not only the images of surrounding times are provoked, but also the smells and feelings of that time and place.

    Using photography as an aid to memory does not have to obliterate the moment.
  4. When you look at a photo of a person you love, you fall in love all over again.
    michaellinder, Jochen and Moving On like this.
  5. My snapshots are often about the memories. My more serious and art-oriented photos are at least minimally about memory but often more about other things, like simply expressing myself and even sometimes projecting toward a future rather than remembering the past. Sometimes my photos can be more about how I'd like things to be rather than how they are or were.

    My favorite photo not taken was at my nephew's special needs community. I was there for the first of many subsequent visits and a group of about 40 of us gathered to share a bit about how things were going. Though I was there to take photos for them (and me) and to document the community, there were a few times during the week I chose to put my camera down, feeling these were personal moments and also that I wanted to be present sometimes without my camera in hand. As Emily was talking about her plans to spend Christmas with her sister, her sister surprised her by getting there a day early and walking in at the moment Emily was speaking. Her scream of delight at seeing her sister and their initial embrace, I'm sure, would have made a good picture, but I didn't get it. I've never been sorry. And I remember it vividly. I can hear the scream and feel the moment. After a minute or so, as they stood arm in arm, I did take a picture, not as good as the picture I might have taken a minute before, but then life is not just about the best picture, for me. My sense is that holding back at that moment allowed me the intimacy I desired which I was able to build on and put toward future visits and pictures!

    I think one of the significant parts of memories, especially of childhood and times long past, is that our memories of situations do change and aren't always reliable. I like that bit of mystique around memories. It gets me talking to my brother and trying to put together our histories from sometimes two different perspectives of things. And it brings in an element of chance, which I find challenging and inspirational. All the moments that have come since the original event have impacted what or how I remember it. Unless I'm in a court of law, which I rarely find myself in, I don't find an exacting or forensic approach to memory all that desirable, or even human.

    emily and her sister​
  6. To me, there is a difference between a portrait of somebody (which can help trigger memories to that person), and photos from a specific event or occassion. While I do not strictly need the portraits to remember people dear to me, I do find some comfort is seeing them. Like a sort of reference or memory-buoy; it does help anchor the visual memories to a person a bit. But all in all, visual memories for persons aren't the most important to me. At least, for now.

    Photos of occassions and events, I started cutting down on those where I can; people will frequently ask to make photos but if I reasonably can, I'll decline. The camera does get in the way, and I find that it actually distances me from whatever is happening because you're looking at each scene with some sort of double mind - not only trying to enjoy a moment, but also looking at composition, light, catching that particular moment. Often when looking back at photos from events where I did make the photos, I do not feel myself part of whatever is on that photo. I just registered it.

    Of course there is some cross-over; some of those event photos become portraits I value later, and that is a good reason to shoot photos at events at times, but not always, and with plenty moderation.
    Moving On likes this.
  7. My experience is much the same as Wouter's. I'm a poor multi-tasker, and when I'm behind the camera my brain seems to prevent me from being wholly engaged with the experience. I don't think I'm depending on the camera as a substitute for my memory, I just think the camera distracts me enough that I disengage from other things that are happening around me.
  8. Photographs can be useful because we can't trust our memories to be accurate. Oh, we may SAY that we remember everything, that we have a photographic memory, etc. but the reality is quite a bit different. We remember what we THINK happened, not what really happened, especially if there is some strong emotion about that memory.

    The old memory test is still valid.....have ten or twenty people recite a very short story privately to each person. Let the first person recite the story in the ear of the next person, then have that person recite the story in the ear of the person beside them, and on down the line. What we get to the end, the story is almost always not at all what was said in the beginning.

    So if we can't accurately remember something of a short duration, what makes us think we can remember something from decades accurately? We just remember what we remember, not what actually happened. The photograph can be very handy!
    janedragon likes this.
  9. I've seen writing that have discussed how photographs can become a replacement for memory and actually impair memory. However, I've found when I've taken the photo and I look at those photos, almost always I can remember what I was doing, why I took the photo, the camera I used and what was going on at the time. The photo actually keys memory for me, but doesn't replace it. Hard to say at this point if it lessened the ability to remember. Age does that too:) Interesting aside about memory is the effect of writing on memory. It was said that bardic cultures, especially in Ireland at the time of the first christian priests debated whether to adopt writing in the schools. They understood the benefits, but were worried about how it would effect memory. It seems these schools were quite sophisticated in teaching a growing oral tradition and history and employed mnemonic techniques to sharpen and strengthen the ability to memorize. But I remember events when I photograph them normally. Of course not 100%.
    Moving On likes this.
  10. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    Light the corners of my mind

    corners, geddit?
  11. "corners, geddit? " Norm.

    Yep, without them the corners...well, be a bit in the dark;)
  12. As for many, the photos I take frequently serve as mnemonics, opening the door to further bits and pieces of detail, including other senses. It is not so much the case for images captured by others, as they are from a different perspective than my own embedded memories.
    Moving On likes this.
  13. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    I travelled quite extensively as a young man without a camera and couldn’t remember in any detail trips that I’d made to, say, Peru twenty years down the line. I’m not forgetful and I know I’ve been there.

    When sites like flickr came on line I searched for photos of Machu Pichu in the hope they would rekindle something more but they didn’t and i think that was because i hadn’t mapped my experiences onto photographs (sounds a bit obvious, eh?). To me, my faint memories of Peru are all about feelings - anger, joy, ecstasy, relief, fear- of doing the climb. Feelings that I doubt i could have captured on camera.

    So, I no longer regret not having a camera on those trips. There are plenty of great photos of N&S America, Canada, Soviet Union, etc taken by others that I can admire and I still have my vague memories and I like it like that.
  14. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    In my most recent trip (may-jul this year) from St Petersburg to Kunming via Korea and Japan almost all photos I’ve taken have been mnemonics - hotel rooms, toilets, under the bed, bars, train stations. All crap but I like them and know they will come in handy.
  15. Not for me.
    The signature difference for me in the personal photo vs the generic when it comes to places I’ve been and people I’ve met is that it triggers mental files that have been dormant for years.
    A slideshow of old photos I have taken, on the computer set to a song I heard at the time, enhances the experience even more.
    A good example is that I recently went by the old school I went to as a child, and took pictures of the areas around the building that hadn’t changed in 50 years. I remembered the smell of the books from the basement book room, the smell of the wax on the hardwood floor, the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil. Even the emotions of growing up among my peers.
    All this comes back when I look at pictures like that.
    Anticipating moving on to new pastures, I have been accumulating photos of my oft taken for granted little world for the past 57 years, places I have passed many times that at some point past where scenes of happy memories.
    Places I will never see again once I move on.
    The experience is a part of growing old I guess and the old cameras enhance the sentimental exercise.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018
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  16. I have always told people younger than myself they should keep a journal. Writing down experiences of note, opinions of people, places, and events.
    Also thoughts about present achievements and future goals. Looking back over those notes makes for a fascinatingly revealing retrospect into how life’s relationships and experiences mold and change oneself.

    If I write things down details are much easier to recall later.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018
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  17. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    Fair enough, Mark, and to be honest, I’ve changed with respect to capturing memories. When I was young, travelling and seeing the world was everything but as important was the fact it was transient and never ending. I remember thinking documenting stuff with a camera as being slightly nerdy.

    Nowadays, like I mentioned, i photograph everything.
  18. I am always self conscious when I have a camera in my hand around people. Probably more than those who see it.
    Never got over it.
  19. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    I tried that to help me recall my dreams. I awoke one night and immediately wrote down what I was dreaming about. In the morning, it made no sense whatsoever. LOL
  20. They, photos, don’t record feelings.

    They trigger unique memories associated with the image and the brain does the rest.

    Thought I was clear on that
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018

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