Memory & Seeing
“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.