Memory is in the Eye of the Beholder

After analyzing Barthes’s presented relationship between photograph and memory in my previous post, I came to two conclusions. I agreed with Barthes’s claim that a photograph is not a memory because for me, memories are composed of not simply images (photographs), but also sounds and smells. However, I disagreed with his belief that a photograph acts as a “counter-memory” which blocks real memories. Barthes explains that a photograph “fills the sight by force” with static images that are “full” and “crammed” so that “nothing can be added to it” (Barthes, 89). It seems that once he looks at his “old photographs,” these photographs latch onto where Barthes’s real memories may have resided and shroud his precious memories with one image, refusing to leave or be “transformed” (91). Previously, I contradicted this idea of a photograph acting as a memory block because I saw my photographs as “doorways to the larger stream of memories in my mind” which “meld[ed] seamlessly into the memories they trigger[ed].” It was not until I considered both sloankatherine’s ‘The Real and the Reel‘ and hannahfiasco’s ‘My Winter Garden Photograph‘ that I realized how Barthes’s relationship between photographs and memories is further complicated by the relationship between the photograph and its beholder.

The beholder of the photograph is the person who looks at the photograph. This is the primary relationship between beholder and photograph. The secondary relationship is how the beholder relates to the photograph. The beholder could be the photographer of the photograph. The beholder could be present in the photograph (a subject), but have no memory of taking the photo or the photo being taken. The beholder could also be a complete stranger to the photograph (neither the photographer nor the subject). There are other secondary relationships between beholder and photograph, but in this post, I will be addressing the three previously mentioned.

In my previous post, I was both the beholder and photographer of the photograph. It was easy to declare that the image served as a doorway to my memories because I took the photograph. I was the one who framed the image and decided to immortalize the moment in film. As hannahfiasco points out in her post, “The memory may not always exist for the subject, but it must always have existed for the photographer or the operator, who deemed some facet of the moment appropriate for capturing.” It is not difficult for the photograph to trigger my memory because as I mentioned in my previous post, “it is as if that day was a movie, playing in my mind, and each [photograph] was a freeze frame.” As the photographer, I am sure this moment happened. I was there. The negative of the image, the print on my wall, the image on the screen — they are all proof that I was there. The photograph has in a way become a visual aid to my memory, it does not confuse, but reinforces.

In her post, ‘The Real and the Reel,’ sloankatherine shares the second relationship mentioned between beholder and photograph. She is present in the photograph, but she does not remember the photograph being taken. Sloankatherine brings up an interesting point when she states that she “remember[s] having memories of [her] brother’s birth” but soon realizes that the “memories [come] from photographs that [her] mother showed [her] as a child.” I can relate to this realization because as a young child, my parents and grandparents would tell me stories about myself. They often substantiated their stories with photographs, creating in my mind the “fabricated memories” that sloankatherine mentions. This brings into question of whether or not the photograph is acting as a “counter-memory” to the beholder. If the memory is not real, and in fact comes from the photograph itself, then the photograph cannot block the memory. In truth, the photograph seems to be generating a memory. Although, this memory generation in the beholder (who is a subject) is not quite the same as the memory trigger in the beholder (who is a photographer), there does not appear to be the block that Barthes highlights in his photograph-memory relationship.

To me, the most interesting case is the one in which the beholder is a complete stranger to the photograph. Being neither photographer nor subject, the beholder becomes completely detached from the photograph. As hannahfiasco points out in ‘My Winter Garden Photograph,’ “to an outsider the image above is nothing.” At first, I am somewhat inclined to agree with this statement because before I read her post, the photograph was simply an image of “two people sitting on a couch with dogs.” If I pushed myself to read a little more into it, I would say that they both look happy. But, that’s it. Obviously, I have no memory of it, because I was not present as either photographer or subject. Therefore, the photograph blocks nothing. Once again, I must disagree with Barthes’s argument. As I thought more about this type of secondary relationship though, I wondered what a photograph does, if there is a blank piece of estate in my mind. It creates a memory. Unlike like the fabricated memory of childhood though, in which someone else might create the memory for me, I am in control. If I were to ever see this image again, a memory would be triggered — one in which I am scrolling through the posts of this blog and stopping at hannahfiasco’s because the content caught my eye. This is obviously very different from the memory that the photograph triggers for her, but then again, we are not the same beholder.

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