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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Playing with Memory

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Playing with Memory

Video Game Perspectives on Memory Loss

            Alzheimer’s Disease and amnesia are terrifying prospects, demons lurking in the shadows that could strike at any time, time bombs that explode on entire families. However, nonetheless counter-intuitive, is it productive or even possible to turn the perspective around and see memory loss as an opportunity, an open space of agency and re-growth? Video games offer an altogether less negative outlook on the topic.

            Fictional and autobiographical works of art have sought to provide a perspective on, if not an understanding of, memory loss and Alzheimer’s whether it be through Alice Munro’s forgotten husband in The Bear Came over the Mountain or the diligent Harvard professor in the film Still Alice. As valid works of art in themselves, video games also depict memory problems dramatically, shedding light on highly personal accounts, sometimes fictionalized, sometimes biographical, often both. However, there are some specific elements of the medium itself that inevitably render its depictions of memory and lack thereof differently from literature or cinema.

            This paper aims to provide a fresh insight into the theme of memory loss by exploring it through the lens of video gaming, an art form still looked down upon by more conservative academics despite its obvious and growing importance in society and in general artistic consumption. I will draw out a few concepts in videogaming that I deem to be relevant in the study of memory. I will then exemplify these concepts and explore the theme at hand in some video games. This will hopefully help not only in furnishing the fan of cultural expressions of memory with one of its components, but also further our philosophical, personal, and conceptual reflections on memory loss and its impacts.

            The most notable feature unique to  the medium at hand is its interactivity. The game developer(s) and the player become co-narrators of a narrative whose control is ultimately shared by both of them, according to Tamer Thabet who theorizes co-narration in Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story. The player’s input is indeed necessary for the visual and literary narrative to even take place. Games are indeed initially coded, so the narrative is ultimately constrained by that which is coded – however, the narrative is complete with only a fraction of the visible codes. In other words, much like a reader of a “choose your own adventure” novel, players have a certain level of agency (which varies incredibly from game to game) in the narrative that goes on – though unlike these novels, video games present a virtually infinite number of variations from playthrough to playthrough, and most games still do present a plot whose beginning and end are the same in terms of plot, but the in-between is entirely malleable. This difference from other narratives is indeed major as the visual and literary world that is presented to the player is one which must be actively explored by her. The narrative is co-created by the player as it unfolds in front of her, simultaneously as her fingers input commands. Her fingers write and draw the narrative made available to her by the developer(s), in a “dance of the hands,” as Graeme Kirkpatrick conceptualizes in Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. The game presents a mirror to the player, in a sense reminiscent of film theorists’ (debated) argument that movies force identification of the viewer with the protagonist, but even more so, as the player really is, becomes, embodies the protagonist. The movements of the player’s hands (and also her whole body in some recent games) are emulated by the protagonist. They become one another.

            Ruggill and McAllister identify the medium as “immersive” (5) and “persuasive” (11) in Gaming Matters because of its interactivity, and Wolf explains that the “interactive nature of video games, the possibility of many different outcomes, and the illusion of effectiveness and power on the part of the player can make video games potentially more attractive to people than more passive media” (4). Indeed, video game is the epitome of activeness in art, which is rendered obvious right away by the linguistic term “player” for the audience of video games, rather than simply “viewer”. To play is to be active, like one plays a sport or plays a role. But this activity is interactivity: there is not only an interaction between the player and the developers in order to narrate the game, but also between the player and the protagonist of the game. In fact, in an ever growing number of games, players get to choose an impressive number of elements of the protagonist, from their hairstyle, their voice and their favorite meal, to their race, their gender, and their sexual orientation. Does the protagonist become the player or does the player become the protagonist? This is indeed a very big, multilayered question, but in the context of this paper, I will stop this train of thought at the idea that player and protagonist are a (more or less blurry and distorted) mirror of each other, a product of the interactivity inherent to videogaming.

            The notions of co-narration and of interactivity, as they pertain to videogame, take on a notable significance when exploring the themes of memory and memory loss, I advance. There is undoubtedly a cognitive element in videogaming which relates to mental work associated to memory, though this is beyond the scope of this paper. It is nonetheless worth noting that Gazzaley Labs at UCSF have developed a videogame, Neuroracer, which is intended to fight the aging of the brain in older adults, and so, dementia and memory problems. But beyond these player-centred cognitive mechanism, videogames offer a rich perspective and treatment of the theme of memory itself.

            Let us first take a look at To the Moon, a game published in 2011 by Freebird Games. The game follows two so-called memory doctors, whose work consists of changing and creating memories, as they attempt to change a man on his deathbed’s memories in order to fulfil his last wish to go to the moon. To do so, they travel to the physical space of his memories, which the player and the protagonists freely explore, solving puzzles, to first and foremost figure out where the desire to go to the moon is rooted, and then to make changes to a series of memories that would make him truly believe, right before his death, that he was indeed an astronaut that set foot on the moon..

            The narrative thus seems to follow the same stages of Alzheimer’s disease, that is, in reverse chronological order until the patient’s death. The protagonists are timed, as they must find a way to make him go on the moon before his death; before his complete loss of personality, pointing towards retrogenesis itself, but actually living his retrogenesis, becoming it through the entering into the space of his memories in reverse chronological order. His state in fact deteriorates the further the doctors regress into his childhood. As Tadié underlines in Le sens de la mémoire, personality does not survive the destruction of memory, citing Alzheimer’s as case in point. And, as the game progresses, the man forgets absolutely everything except his desire to go to the moon. This is how the game presents itself as an allegory of Alzheimer’s – or at the very least, as loss of memory with old age, as regression. The most interesting part however is the role played by the doctors, and by extension, the player. Memories are considered as malleable, much like identity, and so it comes down to the player to shape the memories and so the identity – and thus, the player’s own identity, as we have considered earlier the characters to be mirrors of the player. Memories become not only a figurative but also a literal space of reconstruction of the self, as they are themselves reconstructed by the protagonists/player.

            In fact, videogaming as a medium seems obsessed with memory loss. This seems without a doubt linked to the previous ideas of interactivity, co-narration, and immersion. Role-Playing Games such as Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy initially present protagonists which are memory- and identity-less, blank canvases of sorts, which allows for the player’s input. This has in fact become a trope, a cliché. These games, and even games such as Pokémon, often open with a black screen requesting the player/protagonist to input her name on a keyboard. This name is then used throughout the entirety of the game. Right away, the player must name her character, the pivotal element of the narrative, a clear act not only of agency, but of player-protagonist identification. The game screen becomes a mirror, but an active one, in that it requires the player’s input, unlike that of a film. Following this, a more or less long series of questions are to be answered and input by the player, which will affect the very narrative which is created by the player and her (desired) identity or persona. This concept is taken to the extreme in online games, where interaction with other players are made through the created character. What these amnesiac protagonists ultimately highlight is that, though their lack of memory is often very much a curse, it creates a space of re-creation. The recovery of memory becomes the premise, the quest of these characters who are embodiments of the player, so rather than seeking to recover a blank character’s memory (coded as such by the game developers), these games are actually about the creation of a new identity by the player, who, let us recall, co-narrates them.

            My preliminary conclusions are that, on the one hand, videogames may succeed in depicting with emotional depth and breadth Alzheimer’s and memory loss, as To the Moon does, while still retaining a certain optimism towards them which seems to be embedded in the medium. In fact, videogame protagonists’ shaky memory is not presented as a void, a black hole that sucks everything in of the patient and her environment, a time bomb, but rather as a blank space – a crucial difference. Identity is not destroyed: it is given the opportunity to re-create itself. And in fact, the medium itself does so in actuality to players, not only through the aforementioned Neuroracer and the likes that are truly offsetting the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also through the creation of communities that allow for a constant redefinition of oneself, a space of agency and appropriation of one’s identity. So, not only does videogaming become relevant in the present context as artistic practice, consumption, and representation,  but also as a scientific tool and as a catalyst of identity-construction.

Thanks go to pinko commie queer bastard for letting me run a few ideas by him, and for inspiring some points.

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(This article is to be continued. The bibliography will be added.)