Photography is often used as a tool to help us access memory. By memory, I’m referring to the process by which the mind stores and remembers information from the past. And photographs provide proof. They bare witness. Our family photo albums, for instance, are filled with visual signposts that show evidence of our very existence. Although photographs themselves, are static — they bring a strong feeling of time passing. They remind us of the past, as we locate them in the present. They signify our complex bond with time and in doing so, distort the lived — the present — memory of the viewer. Eventually, when lived memories fade, photographs become the dominant indicators of what that remains.
Memory isn’t just about the subjective mind. It also involves collective properties, too. These properties live inside the minds of our society and come to us via social arrangements, like technology and the media. Memory isn’t just about the subjective mind. It also involves collective properties, too. These properties live inside the minds of society and come to us via social arrangements, like technology and the media. Visual media, such as press photography, define public life and culture via common spectatorship. This binding together creates an effect known as “collective memory”.
Here is an example: The Vietnam War was the first “television war”. Michael Arlen called it a “living room war”. For the first time ever, technology brought a war into people’s homes. Images like these, combined with television coverage, shocked people and for the first time illuminated the horrors of war while it was actually taking place.
Remember the iconic image above? It was made in by Nick Ut, and is arguably one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century. When I think of the Vietnam War, this image immediately comes to mind, even though, I wasn’t even born at the time. Why? because I’m “recollecting” from a “collective memory”. It is not mine — I was not there. I share it with you, and anyone else who has seen this image over the years since 1972.
Now consider the same image, from the perspective of the photographer, Nick Ut. Ut didn’t even realize what he had captured until the film was sent off to be processed. Ut’s memory of this event would be entirely different than mine, or yours. Apply this same logic to any significant historical event you may have witnessed via the visual media. Some examples: the terrorist attacks on 9/11; the fall of the berlin wall; JFK’s assassination; and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Think about how your memory of the event might differ from those present.
Location in photography is another a powerful vehicle for memory. Now consider a photo of yourself as an infant in your own family photo album. Although you will have no memory sitting in your relatives lap, or playing with your sibling, you are provided with tangible proof that it did in fact happen. You are familiar with the image, having seen it growing up. Yet when you think of the scene, you need to remind yourself that you are recalling a visual artifact — composed by somebody else — and not the event itself. This memory will be further conflated by visual markers of place, through which other memories flow.
When I’m traveling, I’m always struck by how different places seem in person. In person, because I’ve often experienced other visual representations of them via media beforehand. Those depictions have already shaped my expectations of what I am yet to experience myself. The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty; the Hollywood Sign; the Eiffel Tower; and the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn’t help but feel like something was off. Somehow, they were both like and unlike how I had imagined them. Now when I see any of them (or others I have visited) in media, I have an entirely new, multidimensional perspective. This aspect of travel has always fascinated me. The union of the imagined with the real when you arrive somewhere new.