On Photographs and Memory

Escaping into Books

Upon reviewing some changes I wanted to make in my life this year in order to grow and learn, I came across an aspiration I had not thought about since the beginning of my long journey as a university student. For as far as I can remember, books have been my safe place. I remember rushing for the Scholastic catalogues and skimming through them to find my favourites. Magic Tree House! or Junie B. Jones, those were my favourite series as a kid. Not to mention the Goosebumps and Hardy Boys series. And above all the books that I can recall from my youth, the Archie comics series was the funnest of times. If I could repurchase most of these series from beginning to end, I would do it in a heartbeat (I am on a mission to do so, one series at a time). However, as most kids and teenagers, I didn’t turn to the books for knowledge, I turned to them to escape. To fantasize about utopia or about feeling like things in the world could change and become that which was described in my books. That, yes you could be born ugly and transform into pretty and eventually become special, i.e. Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld. The ideas in my books fed my imagination and allowed me to keep an open mind while escaping the exaggerated tragedies I faced in my younger years.

Learning from Leisure Reading

That was all some time ago. I can remember the last time a book truly shook me and I remember where I was and I remember the time, but mostly, I remember now that I had not escaped into a book like that since. Upon my recalling of that moment, I also came across another realization. I recognized that I had come to terms with my reality and that I no longer needed to escape it. I had grown. I wanted my books to give me something else. I sought knowledge. Knowledge without conditions. Knowledge without deadlines. I could easily pick up a textbook, right? Or reference books like Neuroscience for Dummies, but that’s not the kind of knowledge I sought. I wanted to learn something that I wouldn’t particularly learn in school but still something that I could relate to and not just store in my head for small talk. So, one day as I was making my way to work on public transit, I googled for lists of top non-fiction books. I can’t recall exactly what words I wrote in the search bar that brought me to this list of books, but it wasn’t a typical list. I wish that I had saved the list for later, but I skimmed through it and wrote down the books that intrigued me.

Hold Still

The first book I purchased and started to read was this book called Hold Still by Sally Mann. The book itself is a memoir as it highlights the bigger events in Sally’s life that particularly stood out to her. It is a very detailed account of photography back in the day. She speaks of the struggles she encountered to create the perfect photograph. In addition she speaks a lot about her family but she touches on a few theories that really made me ponder. One of the things that she said was that the way we recall memories may actually be hindered by photographs (I’m sure this is not groundbreaking but her perspective was definitely different). Sometimes we rely on photographs to remember certain events and so we actually don’t pay much attention to the moment itself. Things like smells, sounds, looks, the details, we sometimes tend to dismiss whilst focusing so much on capturing the moment on our cameras or phones. That’s why I think it can be a dangerous job being a photographer because you’re not entirely living the moment, but busy capturing it.

Memory

One of the reasons I started reading this book was because it was mostly, if not entirely a book about memory and recollection. Interestingly enough a few months before I stumbled upon this book, I too had started creating something of my own from memory. So you can see why my interest sparked when I came across Hold Still. What really stood out to me about this book wasn’t the photographs, or the in-depth analysis of photography and her family, it was in fact the notion of the fragility of our memory. The idea that every time we recall a specific memory from our past, we in fact tend to alter it, even in the slightest (whether a mood, or physical detail of that memory). And the more times we recall that memory the more times we change it. For example, if you’re in a relationship of five years and you’ve just met someone who doesn’t know you or your significant other, their first question usually is, “how did you meet?”. You might notice that your story may differ from that of your significant other. And in fact, the more times you are asked to recall that moment when you met each other, the more times you will change the feelings you felt, the remarks that were made, or even the words that were exchanged. This is not something you do intentionally, but something that changes or changed the way you view that memory over time. If you’re experiencing difficulty in your relationship you might recall the memory a bit differently from when you were first asked to recall it. You might focus on negative aspects more when telling the story, as opposed to focusing on the positive, hence depleting the memory of its authenticity.

Recollection

So, I did a little experiment. I went through some old photographs from my childhood and tried to remember if I could recall the particular event surrounding the picture. It was extremely difficult and for the most part, all I could remember was what was told to me from my parents. I slightly remember running for my play horse in the park, calling it mine, so that my siblings wouldn’t go on it. But they had their own rides that they preferred, yet I still felt the need to race and take a hold of it, as if stopping everyone else from taking it before me.

I remember I was very ticklish! I recall my sister holding me around the neck in this picture below and me bursting into laughter because I could not hold in the tickle – but I do not recall this trip.

Upon scanning through my childhood pictures, I also tried to notice how I was recalling the memory. Was it as if I was looking directly at the picture, or was I recalling it having lived that moment, through my own eyes? It’s hard to explain but I think this is where you can truly differentiate between an actual memory and a story of a memory. A lot of moments from our childhood are repeated to us as we grow older, either in the shape of a lesson, or through photographs. This picture below, I can recall the exact moment I was jumping on the bouncy castle and accidentally sat on my wrist which had glass bracelets (churiyan) on it, instantly piercing my wrist. I remember waiting for the first aid kit and someone wrapping bandaid around my wrist. After all that was taken care of, I was not allowed to jump on the castle anymore and I had to sit there and watch my siblings have all the fun. Recalling this memory, I cannot tell if I am recalling it because it’s been repeated to me so many times that it’s embedded in my mind, or am I actually reliving the moment through my eyes.
Even this picture below, do I remember that I was afraid the mouth would close in on us? Is that why I kept looking above, as to keep an eye on it? Or do I remember feeling that way because of the photograph and because I look concerned and preoccupied with the sculpture?

It was the Photographs

Going back to Sally Mann’s Hold Still, a part in her memoir that truly hit my heart was when she was remembering a friend of hers. She went into describing him and what his presence was like, explaining his aura and the way his face looked. She said she hadn’t a photograph of him to refer to and she made a point along the lines of remembering him so vividly most probably because she had no photographs to refer to. Whereas she said that she had numerous photographs of her father and could not particularly remember her father as well as she remembers this friend. She wrote, “It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photographs.” This really made me wonder, do we unconsciously dismiss details of memories because we know we have photographs that store those memories for us?

Still an Addict

Even after knowing that my mind is altering and not fully grasping all my memories because I focus on capturing them on cameras, I don’t consider this as a deterring factor. Rather, I believe this could work in my favour. Knowing that I need not focus so much on photography and live the moment before I try to capture it is something that I will be more mindful of in the future. But depending on photographs to recall moments should not be the end goal. Instead, photography should be a means of artistic expression more so than a means of recording my life chronicles.
What do you think? Am I hindering my memory and not sharpening it by taking too many photographs, or could these photographs help me in remembering my past if I do forget it in the future? Comment below and give me your perspective!

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