phantoms of lost time

At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students the question, "what can a photograph do?"  Most of them answer that it can capture a moment in time by preserving it forever.  Many then go on to address that a photograph can also capture some sort of emotion, whether happy, sad, or somewhere in between.  I have to remind them that it is not the photograph itself that is doing these things, but rather the meanings and contexts that we as humans have placed upon these photographs.  The photograph in the end is just a collection of light pixels on a computer screen or colors on a piece of paper.  What we see is actually not what we see at all.    

A photograph is not a memory.  It cannot fully capture what we experience and what we remember.  It can help us remember by visually showing us something that happened, but ultimately, a photograph cannot replace the memory we already have in our minds.  At best, a photograph can give us a small nudge towards remembering—a small reminder of what actually happened as our minds remembered and experienced it.  Perhaps we get confused when we say that photographs are visual memories and start to attach emotion to the images themselves.  Emotions however, are too fluid and intangible.  They are not made up of silver halide crystals on emulsion.  They cannot be broken down into lights, darks, colors and textures.  There is the emotion that is triggered from physically holding a photograph in one’s hands, to physically look at the people or things captured on the piece of paper.  However, this mode of looking should not be confused with the meta-physical experience of emotion as our minds remember them.        

I have been thinking a lot about photography and emotion and how we always speak about the power of a photograph to shift our understanding of a situation or capture a fleeting moment that we may never be able to return to.  To me, the human mind is in actuality the medium in which these shifts and captures take place.  The photograph itself is only a conduit for the mind, it enables us to create a physical visual manifestation of something that we think and see in our minds, but only on a superficial level.  How we are actually feeling as we are capturing this moment with the scientific instrument that is the camera is much more complex.

I am thinking a lot about these things because I was once keen on over-documentation.  I wanted to be able to always remember so I was always taking photographs.  For the past year, I have purposefully stopped the over-documentary impulse.  In this time, the memories have developed outside of the darkroom, outside of film emulsion or light sensitive crystals.  The memories have developed just the same, despite the lack of photographs documenting the happenings.  I remember what has happened in this past year but also what has happened before it, and I have not had to look at any photographs from the past to access these memories.  This goes to show that the mind can remember more than we can possibly know—more than a photograph can possibly show. 

Photographs, in the end, are scientific records of a moment.  They are scientific records of light that enters the camera – a machine that adjusts itself with moving parts that open and close.  The emotions, memories, and stories we attach to these photographs come from a human level.  It is not the photographs that are creating these emotions, but it is the human condition that is.

April 2015

Papersafe Issue 04: Memory