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If your memory is not good enough…

Blog-imageI read with interest Eva Wiseman’s article in The Observer on Sunday 22 December 2013 titled “Our addiction to photographing our lives”. There has been a long fascination with photography and its function in relation to memory. In my academic writing I have investigated both the process of remembering and that of forgetting.
This article follows on the general theme of recent discussions around vernacular photography. Many of these view our ‘addiction to photographing our lives’ in a negative way. In this article Wiseman quotes the study of Dr Linda Henkel titled ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” published in the journal of Psychological Science.
The study abstract informs us:

“Two studies examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them. Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them.”

It is from this passage that Wisemen takes her article. Her argument is that the photograph stops us from remembering. What Henkel calls the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Reading this I am referred back to “Camera Lucida” where Barthes describes how the photograph

“… actually blocks the memory, quickly become a counter-memory. One day, some friends were talking about their childhood memories: they had any number: but I, who had just been looking at my old photographs, had none left.”

The photograph has become cast as the evil memory blocker. But before you throw your camera phone apps to the wall there is more to this. Henkel’s study investigated further and this is not mentioned in Wiseman’s article. The abstract continues:

“However, when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired, and, in fact, memory for features that were not zoomed in on was just as strong as memory for features that were zoomed in on. This finding highlights key differences between people’s memory and the camera’s “memory” and suggests that the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect.”

This second part of the abstract describes ‘zooming in’. For us photographers there is hope for our memories, provided we work in the abstract. As a photography tutor, I have always urged students to get closer to the subject. I frequently remind students of Robert Capa’s words:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

[Rather less frequently do I alert students to the fact that he lived and died by this maxim!]
So it seems that in order to preserve (and possibly enhance) the memory recall capability from your photographs you should explore the subject. Get in close, abstract, distort, look up, look in, look across, look down and whatever you do, leave plenty for the imagination to play with. What’s stopping you?

Posted by author: Andrea Norrington
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7 thoughts on “If your memory is not good enough…

  • Maybe the presumed effects have little to do with taking or not taking a photograph, but are more to do with whether or not any detailed observation is taking place at the time? If an object is fully observed and studied in detail before taking a “reminder” photograph it probably helps recall (just as old fashioned written notes, sketches and so on would). However, if a photograph is taken merely as an alternative to observation it probably won’t be very helpful. But surely the problem isn’t with the photograph per se, but whether the act of observing is taking place – the active as opposed to the passive?

    • Agree wholeheartedly with this – there’s is sometimes more of a desire to furnish proof of being there than actually being there. It all about the kudos rather than the experience.

  • I think that a lot depends on context and why one photographs an object; objects that mean something to the photographer, recall relationships, incidents etc. They probably fulfill different needs than those taken for purposes of observation and recording. Far from blocking or replacing memory they can often trigger other associated memories – just a thought.

  • OK, slightly off the topic I will admit but I think Capa’s motto is only good up to a point. Good advice if you are studying People and Place and you are on the ‘People Unaware’ assignment. Yes, get as close as you can, see if people notice you, develop strategies for not being noticed.
    However, it is clear that Capa’s motto has been massively influential in shaping the conflict photography genre, but where has that got us? Not very far I think.
    Take a look at this image by James Natchwey. It makes me recoil in horror. It tells me the man has been the victim of a brutal and sustained attack (at least four separate scars and it suggests the scars are psychological as well as physical. But is that enough? It certainly gives me no context – is the man just a victim or was he a victimising someone when his luck run out.
    Once you have got in close and seen the barbarity of conflict maybe you need to stand back and see the context. And maybe getting in close overwhelms our ability to respond. These ideas are explored in more depth in Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radience.

    • Thanks Gareth – add the Susie Linfield book of my list to read. Much of conflict photography seems to be subsumed into vastness unrelenting media coverage and we have lost sight the single image that stands out.

  • I always get highly annoyed in museums when people spend their time photographing and videoing the exhibits rather than looking at them. They seem to think they have priority over you and will barge in front. I usually say, ‘Excuse me, but I am choosing to look at this now and not later.’ How much will they actually get out of the experience when viewing the photos in the comfort of their home? I expect many don’t even bother. It is the ticking off of the experience that matters- a kind of clocking up. It is indicative of the way many of us live our lives. The snap has made that possible. Actually spending time looking, even if it means also photographing, is seen as a bit eccentric unless you are an artist. Personally, I prefer to draw. I find that the time spent observing whilst drawing provides me with detailed memories. I have dozens and dozens of sketches going back thirty five years. When I look through them, I can always recall where I was- even when viewing the most rapid of sketches.
    I also love old family and holiday snaps and wonder whether some of my memories are actually memories of the memory informed by the photo long after the event.

  • Some interesting points made here – it would be interesting to see how the memory recall would differ if artists had been the subjects and had been sketching in the museum.

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