OCA tutor Jose Navarro on memory and seeing
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Memory & Seeing

© Jose Navarro

“I could only remember photographs, not faces…”, said the interviewee on yesterday’s Radio4 Today programme – from 1hr40′ onwards. Normally, in my half-asleep state at that time of the morning I struggle to pay attention to what is being said. However, that statement not only woke me up but also triggered a chain of interconnected thoughts about memory and photography that I share here on WeAreOCA.
The interviewee was Prof. John Hull, one of the speakers at the Memory Marathon that will take place this weekend at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The event includes a series of talks and exhibits on the theme of memory.
Prof. Hull’s remarks hit me because he has been blind for 30 years.
How a photograph of an event can be remembered on our mind better, or instead of the visual experience (the actual sensory experience) of the event we lived is something that puzzles me. This is the case whether you are visually impaired or not. Is it not true that, as time goes by, events and experiences that you photographed are distilled into the very moments when you took those photographs? Is it not true that photographs that originally only punctuated an experience, eventually become ‘the event’, ‘the experience’ itself?

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory” (John Berger, About Looking)

There is definitely a connection between photographs and ‘the burden’ of memory as Berger calls it. Burden as in something weighty, uncomfortable, perhaps even distressing. That’s the impression that I get when I look at Philip Blenkinsop’s Hmong diaries – Foto8 vol2.no4, pp.8-17.
Diaries perform a very basic function, that of ‘relieving us of the burden’ of having to recollect a past experience in all its intricate detail. It seems that including a layer of photography to a diary adds an even more selective aide-mémoire. In a way that visual layer is less a recollection tool than something that allows us to selectively forget that which we don’t want to remember.

Perhaps that is the subliminal purpose of  Dan Eldon’s iconic diaries. His experience of photographing conflict would have left an indelible mark on anyone, let alone on a twenty-something year old. His diaries effectively changed his experience, a posteriori. Could it be that Dan Eldon’s diaries, eventually, would become the experience itself? Perhaps the diary, rather than showing what the photographer chose not to forget, conceals that which he didn’t want to remember.
And that’s how I understand Prof. Hull’s comments in the Today programme. He said he remembers photographs, not faces. It could be argued that if Prof. Hull were able to remember faces he would be subconsciously admitting to the fact that he can no longer see those faces, that he has been blind since the age of 45.
This is the question I would like to ask both Prof. Hull and John Berger: are photographs relieving us of the burden of our own memories? May be you can ask them yourself if you happen to be in London this weekend. Both Prof. John Hull and John Berger are guest speakers on the Memory Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery.


Posted by author: Jose
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29 thoughts on “Memory & Seeing

  • Interesting stuff there Jose.
    At the Leeds tutorial weekend, Peter Rudge (DuckRabbit) mentioned that people remember in stills, which is one reason his photofilms are so effective – they tap straight into memory (or something like that). At first I was a little unsure of this, but on thinking about it more, I began to come around to this, we remember only fragments.
    Photographs do act as an aide-memoire, bringing associations to the viewer. One thing I have noticed in the past is how I feel like I remember something when viewing a photograph, even if I have no direct experience of the event. I guess I’m tapping into the zeitgeist from the other media streams…

  • I too heard this piece yesterday and what I remember very well was his (Prof. John Hull) decision to “forget” people’s faces as he didn’t want to live in the past – that he would treasure the physical connections he now made.

  • The think that interests me is the way in which photographs and well as other forms of memorial, create false or distorted memory to the extent that the past become a construct rather than a fact. “Nostalgia tells lies about the past in order to serve a project for the future.”
    Martin Bell A Good Read, BBC Radio 4, March 27 2001

    • Peter—need help/clarification on what is meant by ‘construct rather than a fact’. In my head, I’m thinking that the past can never be totally accepted as fact; because the way we saw and remember it—either through memories, and/or as you mention photographs and memorials—means that we will always fashion our memory of the past in terms of the bits we use to create that ‘past’. Did that make sense? Is that what you are saying? Or am I completely off-piste here?

      • By construct I am taking a somewhat Postmodern view that implies that our view of the past is a product of the present (a construct) and that we cannot consider photographs and memorial as being self explanatory ‘facts’
        There are two very different ways of looking at History. One is that the evidence from the time under discussion, documents, artefacts etc. are ‘facts’ and that facts speak for themselves, particularly artefacts and photographs it would seem. The other is that facts cannot speak for themselves and so need interpreting, leading to the extreme Postmodernist view the history is made by historians in the present and not by the past.
        There is an interesting, though controversial, book; In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans, Granta, 1997, that argues for mainstream history against Postmodern, relativist history and the author’s defence of the book against Postmodern critics here

        • The comment ‘that our view of the past is a product of the present’ makes perfect sense to me, because I think we can only interpret the past in view of our present experience—that’s the history teacher in me speaking! Will go off and look at that link—thank you—because I’ll definitely have an opinion there.

  • “are photographs relieving us of the burden of our own memories?”
    At work this is a technique that I sometimes use when my head is too full. I transfer my thoughts or ‘to-do’s’ on to paper to relieve me of the burden of trying to remember everything. And then hope that fact and perception do not get too muddled up.

    • Paul, how can you tell fact from perception I wonder? There would be no facts unless you – or someone else before you – have perceived them previously.

  • It is very difficult to judge from the extracted comment what Professor John Hull actually meant. Is he saying that when he ‘remembers’ someone he remembers them as a photograph such as in an album. Or is he saying that what he remembers is the visual construct of that person as they once were, as perhaps he last saw them, for ever frozen in time. They do not age, lose their hair or alter in any way because he literally cannot see them. If we think of a person who we have known for a long time, say one of our children, by recalling their name (identifier) is not our mental image of them as they were the last time we saw them. If we think about them as a child (I remember her first day at school) is it not the case that what we conjure up is a photograph of them at or about that age. Is it not impossible to have a continuous memory of a person such as a film or video provides and that what we have is a series of snapshots that may or may not be accurate.

    • the way I understood what Prof. Hull said is that he forgot the actual faces of people, including his own wife, and the only way he could remember what they looked like was to visualise them in photographs he had seen before going blind.
      But the idea of the ‘snapshot’ and its parallelism with a fragmented memory is very interesting…

  • Jose
    Something for me to mull over this weekend! But an interesting post; and a very interesting link to the Space, which I found via your link to the Memory Marathon. I think well worth a look for any OCA student. Will report back after weekend when I have had chance to think more…!

      • Jose, I was not clear in my comment. I wish I had the chance to go to the Memory Marathon. If only I had known that it was on—it’s hard to keep tabs on everything that is happening.
        Anyway, what I meant to say was that I will mull over the whole ‘Memory and Seeing’ concept after I had a chance to think more—and I’m still thinking!!

  • The most beautiful passage I’ve read on this ancient theme (I say ancient because before photographs it was paintings which were vying with our experiences for our attention) is in the opening chapter of W. G. Sebald’s ‘Vertigo’, which recounts of the life of Marie Henry Beyle, or Stendhal, as he would come to be known by the pen.
    Based on accounts from his diaries, Sebald describes Beyle’s experience as a member of Napoleon’s legendary transalpine march in 1800. He says that ‘for years [Beyle] lived in the conviction that he could remember every detail of that ride, and particularly of the town of Ivrea, which he beheld for the first time from some three-quarters of a mile away, in light that was already failing’. But then Sebald tells us that:
    ‘It was a severe disappointment, Beyle writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraiving entitled “Prospetto d’Ivrea” and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving…’
    Sebald concludes:
    ‘This being so, Belye’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them’.

    • Superb passage Demha…you know, it was precisely John Berger who asked the question…what was there before photography? He answer the question himself saying that …it wasn’t painting. It was memory. Photography can also displace our memories completely. Very true.
      I think that our memories have a certain continuity – that of a lived experience – that photographs lack.

  • 2 other vaguely relevant references for those wanting to watch around the subject are Taryn Simon’s TED talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/taryn_simon_photographs_secret_sites.html At about 11 minutes in Simon talks about her project covering men wrongfully convicted as a result of reliance on photographic evidence and how that evidence was used to subvert witnesses and victims memories of events.
    Also the film Memento in which a man with no memory (seemingly) uses tattoos and notes to guide his actions to an outcome – has he relieved himself of the burden of memory through mark making, consciously or subconsciously.

    • Thanks for the links Mike. Taryn Simon’s talk is superb. Very relevant to what this post is all about and of great interest to OCA students.
      I remember the film Memento. The main character, played by Guy Pearce, relieved himself from the burden of his lost memory but only temporarily. At the end of the film he forgets the journey ‘through his tattoos’ and is compelled to start all over again – a modern Sisyphus.

  • A text worth investigating by those wishing to delve into the roles of photography, memory, memorial, evidence etc.etc. is John Tagg’s Burden of Representation, University of Minnesota Press, 1993

  • “The camera relieves us of the burden of memory” wrote John Berger; I can not agree with this remark except in a very cursory way.
    Consider the weight of evidence about memory unearthed by psychology for instance.

  • It is an interesting link Vicky. However I’m very much with Amano on this.
    Discussions about the role of photography in memory seem singularly uninformed by the science of psychology and what we have learned about memory in recent decades. Brain scence is still very much a developing area of study but a lot of work has been done and the emerging picture of how memory works is more complex and nuanced than appears here.

  • There is a difference between the scientific measurement of memory capabilities etc. and the contents of people’s recollections. Think how often the account of past events differs from person to person, often in much more than small detail. The book I referred to in a previous post explores the way that images not only convey a mediated view of the past to a third party but even to those involved.
    There is much anecdotal evidence of the loss of apparent memory function as literacy increases, probably not a scientific interpretation of the data (if such is available) but nevertheless the very fact that note taking is advised in place of simply relying on memory (though the notes often simply act as aide memoir so the memory function operates just in a different and possibly unreliable way) suggests a doubt about memory in a literate age.
    What Berger is referring to is, I suspect, not a scientific ‘truth’ but a philosophical debating point about the effect of memorial on memory. Comparing and contrasting the D-Day landings as portrayed in The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan and the effects this has an the memories of any who were involved is instructive.

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