Photography and the Reconstruction of Memory(ies)

Close friends of mine know that the last year has been one full of academic stress, as I had to not only find a new thesis supervisor and committee members, but also a new topic altogether, while falling behind on deadlines. And so, while I’m still quite a newbie in the field of photography, an aspect of my “new” topic, I’ve had to study it (from a theoretical standpoint; I’m a poor photographer and often prefer not to take pictures, but more on this later, perhaps) very intensively in the past two years. And what a deep, fascinating, complex medium it is! Recently, it was the 177th “birthday” of photography (I’m always reluctant to use the term birthday, because such mediums are eternal processes: it existed in other forms prior to its so-called invention, and has since then changed beyond the point of recognition). As I’m currently bathing (or drowning) in research for my upcoming comprehensive exams, I feel compelled to share a tidbit of personal experience.

In May, I moved into a new apartment, one into which I plan to stay for at least 3 years. Having been quite a nomadic person since being of age, I have rarely lived in the same apartment, let alone the same city/country, for over a few months at a time. And so, most of my less practical but meaningful mementos were kept at my mom’s. This necessarily includes photos. When I visited my mom last month, I went through a few different things that I wanted to bring with me, considering that I had settled in somewhere. I came across a few pictures that were quite emotional, and I would like to share one along with a few thoughts, without delving into theory.

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If I had to date it, it would probably be some time in 1991, back when the photographic act was democratized and readily accessible, but still substantial and meaningful since a camera roll had a very limited amount of pictures, which could not be retaken. And so, for the working class, or at least in my family, photography was not a hobby or a passion, as it was indeed a significant expense, but a luxury. We had to invest and make the decision to remember something. Photography is indeed a future-oriented act of archiving. The frame of the photo becomes the prison cell of something that must be forever remembered, a moment frozen still.

However, this “freezing in time” is only true in graphic terms, since indeed meanings aren’t static. Viewing this picture, for instance, brought tears to my eyes not only because of the beauty of the picture, and not at all because it triggered a memory, but exactly because it created a memory. It created an intimate moment with my father that I had never lived. Evidently, I do not remember this moment at all. I would argue that photography, in many cases, isn’t so much the mnemonic device we like to see it, but rather, it participates in the creation of memories. Memories are created every time the picture is viewed, and rather than referring back to the moment it was taken, it emphasizes the very present act of viewing, interpreting, feeling. We are in fact viewing absence itself — what we see in front of us on the picture has vanished with time, and so the (physical) presence of a memento of what once was is merely a perpetual trigger of (chronological) presence when it is viewed. In other words, we don’t remember the moment depicted so much as we are in fact viewing the photo itself depicting a moment, and the act of viewing then triggers a certain (re)construction or even the creation of memories. In fact, the same picture may lead different people to reconstruct different, even opposite, memories.

This picture is of course a prime example. Let me focus on my thoughts as I analyze this picture, so as to underline the very process of the reconstruction of memories. I do not remember this picture being taken nor having ever seen it before. It was completely out of context. Though, I recognize my father, and I recognize myself thanks to other baby pictures of myself that I have seen. This photo thus inserts itself in my metaphotographic world, along with all other pictures I have seen and taken, so as to gain meaning. Its context, the context of its viewing, depends entirely on all my other experiences, particularly my other experiences with photography. I even need these other photos of me to recognize myself in this photo. And, as these experiences keep piling up at every minute of my existence, the experience of viewing may be different one minute from now.

After having recognized the two characters, my dad and me, I am of course struck right away by emotions. Photography captured my dad as he was alive. He has passed away. Let me reiterate that I had never seen this picture, and there are very few pictures of only the two of us. This idea of “capturing” life is one that I explored a little in Photography as a Spell Book so I will not repeat here what I wrote there. But as Roland Barthes, Hervé Guibert, and many others, have looked at in their texts, thinking photography is particularly complex when it is tied to death. This photo forces my brain to think of my dad as alive, almost as if it were a time capsule that keeps changing every time I view it. Like necromancy, he is constantly brought back to life in my mind every time I am the photo’s viewer.

Then, there is me, one year old, a testament of the passage of time. Barely recognizable were it not for having seen other pictures of me, for having been told that “that’s me.” I seem to be very happy; a sort of happiness that doesn’t seem staged, innocently spontaneous. My dad’s very well might be, but, again, these interpretations are reconstructions of the moment through my (limited and) subjective knowledge. The white and empty background, were it not for a chair, really focuses the entirety of the attention of the viewer onto the two of us — the two of them.

Then, I found myself comparing the two of us/them. My hand is tiny compared to his. I try to find myself in him. Do we look anything alike? My ears? My eyes? My posture? My cheeks? I’m not sure, I’m terrible at this, it’s hard to tell. Why this need, though? Am I trying to prove to myself that I am (that the baby depicted here is) indeed his son? Or am I trying to find myself in him? I’m not sure in which direction the comparison is going, as my eyes shift quickly from one to the other. I also come to ask myself: who is the photographer? My mom? If she does not remember, then who would?

I am also made to look at him in a way to reassure myself that yes, this is what he looked like. No, I have not forgotten him. But details have indeed escaped me, and this photo makes these details jump out. I had forgotten where and what his tattoos were. I had forgotten the way his lips smiled. His stomach. The warmth in his eyes. The shape of his eyebrows. His not-so-recently shaved chin. His tanned skin. A great amount of details, all very subjective, that were gone, that turned him into a blur in my mind. An idea more than a physical body. His physicality as a human being was disappearing. Or rather, has indeed disappeared, but this photo helps me reconstruct what I interpret that it was. He does not have the chance of growing older, so unfortunately I am left with a few pictures to fixate his body, to re-create memories of his tangibility without much regard to chronology. Every time I look at this picture, I create my father once again from the debris in my mind. Like making a snowman out of melting March snow. I make something approximate with my knowledge, my interpretations, my memories, and my feelings, which are all rooted in the present act of viewing and thinking, knowing that memories fade slowly with time. Viewing photographs is part of the artistic process of photography, and just like a poem that you re-read, it is different every time and entirely subjective. Photos are not just a crutch for memory, they make memories. It becomes even more complex when you or important people are the subjects/objects of the photo.

Thank you for reading this entry and for your respect toward the photo and my thoughts. Please do not share the picture out of its context, which is this page.

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