Forget what you think you know.


            People turn the last page of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and look up from the book with an entirely new take on photography.  Before they merely looked at photos as permanent representations of events that happened –whether or not they remembered the actual events– and gave it no more thought.  After finishing Barthes’ memoir, however, they call everything into question.  In her post entitled The Real and the Reel, sloankatherine becomes confused with her “sense of self and relationship to time and the world” after seeing a photograph of herself that she doesn’t remember taking, although she believes she remembers the day it was taken, which was the day her younger brother was born.  She describes feeling that she had memories from that day, but upon realizing that she doesn’t remember the photograph taken of her and her family (which indisputably happened) she also realizes that the “memories” she thinks she had may have also been informed by photographs and stories her family showed and told her.  Due to this realization, she contends that photography does not block memory, as Barthes suggests (91) but can actually “supplement and confuse” it.

While  sloankatherine deals with her memory being corrected by a photograph, in her post entitled Evidence in Disguise, deihazel struggles with the idea that a photograph of a person in disguise (a costume of “The Mask”) can potentially obscure a memory, so that eventually no one would be able to remember the true identity of the man in the photo.  She grapples with the idea that although something depicted in a picture must have occurred,(citing Barthes idea of the noeme or the thathasbeen) in the case of the disguised man, she finds that “this picture is not conclusive proof of his presence” because you cannot tell who it is just by the image.   sloankatherine and deihazel discuss similar and overlapping concepts although their examples highlight the opposite roles of photography.  The picture of the brother’s birthday informs the truth about that day and sloankatherine’s memories while the truth about the picture of The Mask can only be held by deihazel‘s memory.

In a completely different way, in her post Summer in the Back of My Mind, dwliu discusses the same concept of how a photograph can interact with the memory an event.  During a beach trip with friends, she took a double exposure photograph that depicted something that literally couldn’t and didn’t occur in real life– because the two moments could not occur at the same time, in the same frame.  However a friend that was with her at the beach believed that the particular image “managed to encapsulate the essence of that day in one photograph”.  Somehow an event that had not happened became a photograph that most accurately depicted the experience.  In this case, true and personal memory was best inspired by a false image and once again it is proven that photography and memory do not directly correlate as these authors used to think it did.

 Through their individual experiences with photography and memory, all three authors arrive at the same conclusion about photographs.  Photographs are supposed to be physical tokens of memories but the photographs and the memories that they represent do not necessarily coincide.  Depending on the situation the photograph may be the best representation of the truth while a memory is clouded with inaccuracy and ambiguity or completely the opposite.  They all are taken with Barthes idea that “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory,” (91), but all in very different ways. deihazel thinks that this may be true, just because the nature of photography only preserves what is seen.  In real life, seeing someone in a disguise or a costume is an entire experience complete with understanding of the context (why the person wears a costume) and understanding of the costumed person’s identity.  A photo will only show the costume, so one day, the memory could be overshadowed or obscured by the image without the additional information of the experience.  sloankatherine and dwliu, actually use the Barthes quote in both of their blog posts –although they each describe wholly different situations– to refute Barthes’ claims.  The blog authors prefer to think of the photographs, even if confusing, as better informants of memory that actually cause more memories to surface. 

Through the analysis of these three posts, a central idea struck me that unified them all.  What if, by taking photographs, we are not blocking our memories but rather we are trying to create memories as they will be remembered or how we want to remember them?

With that thought, I remembered something else I read that more scientifically explored the discrepancy between memory and photography.  Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch of the University of Virginia conducted a study to see if people could identify their own faces (  Seems simple enough, right?  They took both male and female subjects and took a photograph of them making a neutral face.  Two to four weeks after the photograph was taken they invited the people back to see if they could identify themselves out of a lineup.  However, there was a catch, the “lineup” was eleven slightly varying versions of their own photo.  Five versions of the photo were morphed to varying degrees with a standardly attractive face and five versions of the photo were morphed to varying degrees with a standardly unattractive face.  An interesting thing happened: when the people selected the photos of what they thought was their true self, most people picked a photo that was slightly more standardly attractive than their original photo.

People have an image of themselves supplied by their memory of their lives and what they think they see in the mirror but it is probably more attractive than what might actually be shown in photographs.  (Do you know anyone who claims to hate how they look in pictures or not to be photogenic?)  But this is 2012, forget about the days of film cameras when you took a picture and wouldn’t know how it came out until it was developed, and then the image couldn’t be repeated.  With a digital camera you can instantly see what you look like and if you don’t like it, you can try again.  This selection process is especially seen with the frequent use of facebook.  Pictures of people are constantly being posted and tagged, and of course, not all of them are great, luckily there is an “untag” button.  By selective tagging and untagging, people can choose only associate their identity with “good“, attractive pictures of themselves.  Now peoples’ perceptions of themselves can influence how they display themselves to the rest of their friends and the world.  We have control over how our image will be remembered, even if it is a stretch of the truth.

Barthes states 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); but is it the photograph that is violent? Could it be that we are the violent ones? It is not the objects (the camera, the photograph, the image on a computer screen) that have power, they are after all inanimate objects and cannot do anything other than what they are employed to do.  We take the photos, make the photos, and interpret them.  We are the ones who fill or replace our own memories.


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