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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Language Comparisons I

I would like to take a closer look at some expressions and words that I feel like are strikingly different in English and in French.

Life expectancy vs espérance de vie

So when we speak of a given population’s average life span, English uses the noun expectancy, and French uses the noun espérance, hope. That is to say, Anglophones expect to live to a certain age, while Francophones hope to live to a certain age. Expectations imply confidence, a given right. We demand to at least live that long. Hopes imply luck, a privilege. We would be ever so lucky to live that long. I’m wondering how high of an effect this linguistic difference has on actual perceptions of death. Are French speakers more likely to have a certain carpe diem approach to life, while English speakers would have a more pragmatic, future-oriented way of living, taking for granted their life expectancy? There is a huge difference between hoping for something to happen and expecting something to happen. I don’t wanna make unprovable assumptions, but this difference is fascinating and it must have at least a minor, unconscious effect on our way of thinking.

Domestic violence vs violence conjugale

I am interested in the idea of domesticity here. I find this concept quite odd to use in the context of relationship. This term is used so often in so many contexts. We domesticate pets. They belong to us, we tame them. We also use it in political contexts, where domestic means national, as opposed to international or beyond regional borders. It is the geopolitical entity under the rule of one major head of state (say, a queen, a president, a prime minister). Domestic violence is a civil war. It is among two people who are in a conflict, wanting to own and control the territory. They want to tame the other, to assert rule over the home. Conjugal on the other hand is more difficult to grasp. It is only an adjective implying 2 or more people, together (con-), and jugum meaning yoke. So, two people working together, pulling their weight equally. The concept of equality and justice is prevalent here, and makes the breaking of it through violence all the harsher. As well, we conjugate verbs, they become inflected by the Other, the person they are assigned to.What does this difference between English and French? I don’t know, but it’s huge, and problematic in both cases. But it also adds some richness to the conceptualization of these expressions, and there is poetic and healing value in exploring latent baggage of certain realities that we might be victims of.

Graphic vs graphique

Both the English and French forms of the adjective are used to refer to visuals, to images of sorts, but only the English use it to also mean something that is very vivid, with realistic details, often said of accidents or gory events. The fact that these two meanings are contained in one word is interesting. In English, a written description can be graphic. This means that English makes a certain equation of visuality with reality. Something with graphic qualities is something which is vivid and does not spare details. If it is shown visually, it is graphic in both senses. There might be a hidden connotation here: words hide while images reveal. Graphique, on the other hand, is purely a technical term that refers to visuals.

 

 

Foreign Languages and Trauma

Foreign Languages and Trauma

           I’m passionate about learning languages, not only to access the cultural baggage they contain and for the communicative aspect, not only to improve my travelling experiences and to open my mind to new ways of thinking — I could go on and on about the neurological benefits of learning languages — but also, I learn languages as a coping mechanism, as a healing tool.

          The benefits of self-expression, communication, and artistic creation in the process of healing from trauma are no longer to be proven and can hardly be understated, and writing comes to mind first. A great number of writers (all writers?) have the urgent, irrepressible need to communicate something in their soul, in their mind, to grab something in there and put it out there. It is very therapeutic. Like extracting a tumour. As such, language becomes a tool for healing. Not so much a medicine per se, as simply using language in any manner is not sufficient in itself. It is more like a scalpel, which needs to be used well and carefully to heal. Language can also backfire and entrap in trauma, as I argue is the case with Nelly Arcan, a writer whose language became her only way out, but ultimately made her go around in circles infinitely, creating a prison out of her literary space. However, I’ve written on this quite a lot already, so for now I would like to raise a tangential idea and push my metaphor further: if (a) language is a tool for healing (say, a scalpel), is learning additional languages giving oneself more tools for healing (say, anesthetics and stitches)?

       This may stem from my own introspective thinking, as it is one of my coping mechanisms, and I’ve sometimes found writing in a foreign language particularly therapeutic. French is indeed linked to all my emotions and basic thoughts (I feel in French), while my knowledge of English and German stems from thousands of hours of intellectual work. I don’t feel traurig or hoffnungslos or terrified or aloof. I’ve learned, memorized these words. I’ve thought them through, which means I know precisely the weight each word I use has, which is not always the case in French, where my use is more spontaneous and informed by a certain naïveté. I never actively and consciously learned French. My learning of French (in strictly communicative terms, I have indeed spent a lot of time to improve my mastery of it, but never had to learn it from scratch) did not implicate any choice, any agency.

           It can of course be very cathartic to express oneself naturally, without the additional constraints of the intellectual work that comes with using a foreign language, and I often do write in French, don’t get me wrong. But writing in English or in German allows a certain distanciation from the written words. It is not so much a mirror that reflects the state of your soul back at you, but more a product of reflection, not only of content but also of the structure, grammar, and words themselves. This mirror is often that which entraps you in your own trauma, as you keep seeing yourself in the traumatic words that you write. Trauma takes the bigger piece of your literary identity, which, for a writer, is gigantic. On the other hand, writing in a foreign language may help by getting it out there, but leaving it on its own. It is still the productive result of your work and creativity, but there is more distance that allows for a more objective or external look at it. The writing process is also altogether different, involving different parts of your brain, which may or may not be a better healing tool for you. Indeed, just like a scalpel is inappropriate if you have the flu, different tools work at different times for different people, and so I would argue that it never hurts to have more tools at your disposition.

Photography as a Spell Book

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Photography as a Spell Book

 

         The metaphor of photography as freezing time has become commonplace, almost clichéd now. A number of scholars have discussed in greater depth the diverse, multilayered temporal implications of photography and of the photographic process, which fascinate me. There is indeed a complex web of perceptions on the matter: photographs carry the past, trigger memories, are testimonies of history; they are stills of a fleeting present, a very precise, almost surgical moment in time, the epitome of presence, the length of a nanosecond; and they take on a life of their own, an afterlife, constantly reinterpreted in the future, creating a metaphysical space with its own destiny. In fact, it appears that photographs exist in and represent all temporal tenses. It comes to no surprise that photography has been described by various scholars in magical, mystical terms: freezing time, necromancy, capturing souls, ghostly images, etc. I wish to develop the idea that it is this crossing of temporal boundaries, the disruption of chronology, that is at the heart of these altogether ethereal metaphorical terms in relation to photography. After all, time is considered as the one major uncontrollable element of life, the one fatality to which all human beings are submitted no matter what — and photography comes to disrupt this trope on which humanity is founded.

            Two texts that I have recently read (Blow-Up by Julio Cortazár and Veronica’s Shrouds by Michel Tourmier) depict characters who are upset by having their picture taken, who are deeply shaken by the photographic act. That is to say, these fictional characters are taken out of their temporality, and begin existing in the chronology contained in the photograph, parallel to theirs. The image is of them, but it is not them (or taken by them but not theirs), because it lives in its own chronology, and therein lies the malaise of the photographed subject and the photographer alike. The problem lies not so much the photographer, but more so in eventual viewers of the photograph. The photographer is merely a cog in the photographic process which gives another life to that which already has life — but an alien life, because of its other temporal reality. But a photographer always eventually plays the dual role of creator and viewer.

This is of course reminiscent of Baudrillard, who considers the photograph as having a life of its own, not a mere item created by the photographer. I wish to emphasize, however, the importance of the viewer in what I consider the life-giving of the photograph, its “afterlife,” and its chronology. I am reminded here of Elissa Marder, who uses strikingly carnal vocabulary in relation to photography in Nothing to Say: Fragments on the Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, speaking of it as procreation, as a stillborn, and calling the photographer “midwife to the photographed body,” also stating that “photography is magic and not art.” This fleshly yet ethereal consideration of photography is indeed a paradox which is at the heart of the medium, which also comes forth in the tension between presence and absence that we have discussed. The material at hand is difficult to unpack: a photograph is born yet its flesh is not human, it is both an illusion and a reality (see Baudrillard), much like the language that is used to describe it. Photography disrupts time, and this is why it is imbued with magical, spiritual properties. It is striking that Ivan Vladislavic writes in The Last Walk that “Photography is the negation of chronology” and that there is no “meantime” in photography.

A person, confronted by a photograph of himself or herself, faces a clone — a clone which is inevitably younger, since the act of viewing a photograph is always ulterior to the act of pressing the shutter-release button – and so, the past is brought to life in the present when the photograph is viewed. The viewer is then confronted to a twisted, distorted chronology, where someone that was him but is not anymore keeps evolving, and changing when it is viewed, in the space of the frame, as well as in the off-frame (see Christian Metz, Teresa de Lauretis). The space created by the photograph is thus not only tangible and physical in the space of the photograph itself, but also ethereal in the time and space that it creates. As such, one feels compelled to use a lexica of magic and mysticism. I wish to add my metaphor: a photograph is a spell book. When it is read, it brings about its own world which is unique to the subjective reader. The magical world is still present when the book is closed, which is a physical reality in itself, but its existence is brought forth every time it is read, differently so. As such, the same spell book creates a different, subjective world for every viewer. It also creates a rupture, inevitably disrupting chronology, hence its magic. It relentlessly creates illusions which are nonetheless real — both metaphysically (hence the frame) and figuratively, though more so the latter.

This metaphor becomes productive in the context of its literary qualities. A spell is little more than a poem – Roland Barthes would say (Camera Lucida): a haiku, which is self-contained according to him – but I would rather say a spell, since there are no barriers to the ethereal space created by a picture, despite having clear physical boundaries (the frame), much like a spell which begins with the first letter and ends with the final period, but its purpose is to create an open world in which the reader is brought, “interpelé” as we say in French.

In this case, the interpellation might take on the form of the punctum, where a viewer is struck by a specific element for a variety of conscious and unconscious subjective reasons. Interestingly, Vladislavic’s The Last Walk, literary narrative whose premise in the interpretation of photographs, ends with “Google him.” These two words are a direct interpellation from the writer to the reader. Much like the lady who observes the hung men strikes him on a photograph, he strikes the reader of his literary narrative by addressing him or her, which is, for me personally, a punctum in his text. I had to go and google the Danish explorer. I was struck by this literary moment, which disrupted my own temporal reality in the reading of the text. I was faced with a moment in the text that inserted itself into my own life — like a foreign body inside of my own mind, my own body.

The relationship between literature and photography in the context of chronology, of a discourse on life-giving and afterlife (let us compare the two components of Vladislavic’s TJ/Double Negative which take on a separate life of their own, creating their own parallel chronology) is valuable and fascinating. It is all the more so in photographic novels, where one is presented with both pictorial and textual elements in the same physical frame of a piece of art. Where does one draw the line between the physical and the ethereal spaces and chronologies? Let us think, as a final note, of Faucon’s Chambres d’amour who presents us “rooms of love” in complete disorder (1, 7, 4, 5, 11, 8 and so on), a chronology of its own, already disrupting our chronology as viewer/reader, accompanied by text which states that chambre d’amour 8 is in fact the “première fois” (first time), and some poetry. Text and image contradict, disrupt each other’s chronology while assisting each other in disrupting the reader/viewer’s chronology. In fact, Jean-Paul Michel, in his preface to Chambres d’amour, writes that “toute l’écriture est de la sorcellerie” (all writing is witchcraft). It is, indeed, witchcraft because it disrupts chronology, reinforcing the imagery of photography and the reason for this imagery I have discussed here.

Being Ashamed of Past Work

Being Ashamed of Past Work

            As I was going through my files of texts I’ve written over the years to see if any of them should be reanimated by Dr. Krabby, it occurred to me how the older the text was, the more shameful I felt reading it. It is a common feeling that any artist or student has, I imagine, to feel that way about past work — because, obviously, we’re so much better than we were. Are we really, though? Does this sense of shame, of a sort of Fremdschämen towards another Self, not anymore recognized as one, really stem from we being so superior to who we once were? Of course, we are in constant change. We are shaped by our experiences, but do these make us objectively better at our art? Not at all: just think of the art you prefer. Very often, I like a singer’s first albums more than their later ones (e.g. Adele), a theorist’s first ideas rather than their latest (e.g. Judith Butler), a writer’s first texts (e.g. Amélie Nothomb). So why would I see a progress in me that I do recognize in others? When critiquing others, we do not consider their progress as artists, the growth in the mastery of their skills, we simply consider different styles, variations, artistic directions taken. There is a clear rift between the art and the artist that we see in others. We recognize our own subjectivity in saying “I personally prefer Romeo and Juliet over Hamlet,” without implying that Shakespeare got worse with time, and without considering that his writing skills should have improved.

            So why are we so different? Are we narcissistic in thinking we’re so much better than our past self, we evolve so much, but when it comes to others, it’s a non-variable? Why are we ashamed of our own past work? Aren’t we hypocritical in almost always preferring our own latest work, while we almost always do not prefer our favorite artists’ latest work? I’m simply thinking out loud here, but to answer my own questions, I wouldn’t say hypocritical per se, and not quite narcissistic, but lacking perspective, navel-gazing. We always see our own improvement in what we do because we know exactly the amount of time and energy that has gone in any piece of work, without thinking of the life the piece of work we created has. Once something is out there, it’s not ours anymore. We try to control everything we create like possessive parents, but much like kids, the work of art is out there on its own. We are responsible for its content, but not for its reception. And without any reception, we are doomed to be both the performer and the public, and we’re a terrible public, in that we are unable to see the work only for what it is, we see the work we’ve done. We see a mirror of ourselves. And so, when we view a piece of art that was created by what seems a different us, we feel shame not because of the piece of art itself, but because of the artist we once were. The mirror is reflecting a different person who is supposed to be us, but is not. I don’t think it’s fair to be ashamed of ourselves, because it’s not so much that we lacked experience and skills, but that we were in a different time and space, a different emotional, mental, and physical state which gave rise to a piece of art we would not create today. We have to learn to see our own art for what it is: art. Not our art, it does not belong to us anymore. We also need to stop focusing so much on improving constantly, because that perpetually sets impossibly high standards, and because it is simply not true. We gain more knowledge and skills from which our art benefits, but that does not de facto make our art better to every single individual that receives it, because they also come with their own baggage and will interact with our art differently than we do. Fear not: your skills are improving, but this isn’t about you. It’s about all of us as individuals.