In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes declares, “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory […] but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes, 91). At first, Barthes’ statement makes sense as I can relate to the confusion that surrounds childhood memories. Growing up, my parents and grandparents told me stories about my youth. They supported their stories with photographs, planting visual and oral evidence in my mind. I often wonder how many of my memories are real and how many are false. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it would be a fruitless task to try to tally up how many of each preside in my mind. These false memories are often difficult to detect. They flow out naturally along with the real memories, only to be distinguished when I struggle to recall the trigger.
Real memories rise to the surface unannounced when I come across a random object, hear a moving piece of music, or smell a familiar scent. They are impossible to summon by will. The memory becomes more vivid as it accelerates to the surface of my mind. False memories, on the other hand, center around a hazy image or a story. They float beneath the surface, ready at my beck and call. I suppose that Barthes would claim that my false memories lack what he calls punctum; there is no emotional wound, there is simply a lukewarm feeling from a story that I have recounted too often.
I agree with Barthes when he states that photographs are not memories. For me, memories are composed of images, sounds, and smells. Photographs are only images. They cannot capture sound or smell. But, this does not mean that photographs block memory. For me, they do not become this mysterious “counter-memory” that Barthes speaks of. This “counter-memory” effect seems to occur when Barthes surrounds himself with too many photographs and overstimulates his sense of sight, blocking his ability to summon memories. He claims that “the Photograph is violent […] because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed” (Barthes, 91). Even if sight is being filled” by force” I do not feel as if a photograph can completely block memory. Of course an image can be overwhelming, but as previously mentioned, memory is composed of more than sight — sound and smell also play key roles.
The summer before college, a large group of friends and I went to Wingaersheek Beach to celebrate our brief freedom from formal education. Naturally, as one of the designated photographers of my friend group I took a copious amount of photographs of that day. Many made their way onto Facebook, but the one that I included with this reflection, received the most attention. When I talked to my friend about this photograph, she told me that she liked it because it managed to encapsulate the essence of that day in one photograph. I found her comment odd because the photograph represented merely one moment of that day. Perhaps I do not look back upon this photo as fondly because I was there, taking so many other photos. It is impossible to define the event (going to Wingaersheek Beach) by this one photograph, or even all of the photographs I had taken. When I look at these beach photographs, they do not block my memory of that day. In fact, they act as doorways to the larger stream of memories in my mind. It is as if that day were a movie, playing in my mind, and each of these photographs were a freeze frame. But they are not frozen in the way that Barthes seems to believe that photographs are (“nothing can be refused or transformed”) since they meld seamlessly into the memories they trigger.
They are only the opening credits, a hint of what is to come.