Photographic Memory

The posts “My Winter Garden Photograph,” “What Really Matters,” and “I Want to be Just Like You” share a commonality that stands out to me. Each poster is featured in the photograph that he or she posted and has a personal memory connected with the moment documented. However, the associated memory is not necessarily of that exact moment the operator snapped the photograph. In each of these posts, and actually in many posts on this blog, the memory associated with a photograph is of a series of events or feelings, and specific to this assignment, of a relationship with a family member. But a relationship is not a tangible object. Photographs attempt to make memory tangible, but memory, especially of something like a family relationship, is not tangible. A photograph – despite its “that has been” quality – is not equivalent to a memory.

A photograph is not a memory in and of itself, but it stimulates memory. Does this stimulant contaminate memory or purify memory? Based on these posts and my own experiences with photographs, my equivocal response to this question is, “It depends.” In my own Barthes post, I assert that all photographs are experienced subjectively by the viewer. So it depends on the viewer’s personal experience of a photograph whether memory will be aided or injured. For example, Barthes sees a punctum when looking a photograph, while others may not. He attempts to examine a photograph objectively, while another might try to imagine what it would be like to be ‘inside’ the photograph. For the posters of “My Winter Garden Photograph,” “What really matters,” and “I Want to be Just Like You,” their photographs do not contaminate their memory – or at least the memory that is meaningful for them.

The posters attest to the lack of precise memory of the actual taking of the photographs they are featured in. According to Barthes, a photograph is violent because it forces an image of that which has been. “Evidence” in photographs may deceive the viewer and distort his or her perception of reality. Studies have shown how malleable memory really is – and photographs, are accused of playing a part in distorting memory.

The poster of “What Really Matters” struggles with relating to his past self. He sees the photograph in relation to his current frame of mind and relationship with his father, not his past relationship. Though the memory associated with the photograph is not necessarily accurate with the “that has been,” the memory the photograph inspires is “true.” Much like Barthes relationship to the Winter Garden photograph, the picture was taken before the essence it captures existed. Barthes did not know his mother at the time the photograph was taken – she was probably a very different woman than the one he knew. But the photograph still inspires the memory of the mother that he knew, so the memory inspired is “true.” Though the poster’s photograph was taken before the close relationship was developed, it still captures the relationship’s essence.

To the poster of “I Want to be Just Like You,” the photo is not of two girls in yellow tank tops, but of sisterhood and a special relationship. The author of the post writes about how the discovery of the photograph rebirthed the memory that may have lay dormant. I doubt that the memory of the relationship with a sister would never surface, but that particular symbol of love – the matching yellow shirts, may have been forgotten without the photograph. In this instance, the photograph – usually a symbol of something deeper, presents a reminder of another symbol – the yellow shirts. In this case the photograph helped recall a precious memory, rather than taint it.

It seems that Barthes makes an important distinction between the ways of looking at family photographs and looking at photographs he has no personal connection to. In the case of the photograph of his mother, he sees an essence of her that he knew before he saw the photograph. He values the photograph because it confirms the “image” of his mother in his memory. For non-intimate photographs, he values the “that has been” quality of it and wishes the photograph to be representative of the reality at the time of the photograph. But if the memories are true, of the does it even matter if the memories inspired by a photograph align with the literal “that has been”?

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