Do you experience PTSD, Photo-Taking Snap Disorder? It's main symptom is not remembering that you took the shot.
Looking back over my photos from a couple years ago, there are many I do not recall taking. Why do we recollect certain images and forget others? Before we explore this question, here is the bottom line solution...
We have to pay attention, think about, re-collect, and be remindful of the who, what, where, when and why of a photograph. If we are to experientially remember what we photograph, we must do something with our photos. Photography is what we do with it, and to remember it we have to act upon a photograph before and after taking it.
In Fairfield, Connecticut, researcher Linda Henkel coined the phrase "photo-taking impairment effect" which I called PTSD, above. Her team carried out an experiment in a museum, to see if taking pictures of the art objects there messed up the photographer's ability to remember what they had seen.
She took a bunch of students on a tour of Bellarmine Museum of Art and had them: a) photograph the exhibits, or B) try and remember the displayed objects because they'd be asked about them later. Then she tested their memories, and results suggested that taking pictures prevents memories from solidifying.
But here is the twist.
The researchers discovered that taking a photo of a specific detail ‒ by zooming in on it ‒ helped each photographer remember not just the detail but the entire object, even when most of the art object was out of the photographers' framed shot. What does this mean? The camera's eye, and the mind's eye, are totally different when it comes to memory.
To remember objects and events, we have to make time to review them. If we just amass thousands of images, with no organization, we will not reminisce, and we will forget. Photographs not only are what we make of them, we have to dive into them, and keep them active in memory, remindfully.
This might explain why I do not even remember taking older photos I see in my files. I did not review, or make time to solidify them in memory. Reminiscing and reviewing photographs that helps us remember. Context lets us get their gist.
THE NUMB TOTAL
Not only can I photograph a scene and later have no memory of what happened, I can look at a series of photographs of horrible brutality that should be shocking and yet feel only numbness.
Recently I was recently given the anesthetic Versed for a medical procedure. I had memory loss "under" anesthesia. For 45 minutes after I "woke up" and regained consciousness, I had no memory of getting dressed, answering questions, working on my website, or walking outside to the car. Retrograde amnesia is a common Versed side effect, and it is typical for people to be unaware that their memory is impaired.
The experience made me wonder about anesthesia, the drug, and how photographs can anesthetize us. From a literary perspective, the language of anesthesia, like that of the photographic arts, is a metaphorical one. "Under anesthesia" is a metaphor that suggests anesthesia is "down" with an up-down orientation. It is structural because it says that a person can be "under" a thing we call anesthesia. In general, things that are "up" are good. Health and life are up. Down things are bad: death and sickness are down. Somewhere in the middle of up and down, getting anesthetized by photographs, and by drugs, suspends us between life and death.
"Images anesthetize," said writer and critic Susan Sontag in her thoughts about photography. Taking photographs with partial attention may, like an anesthetic, make our memories fuzzy and indistinct. Paradoxically, photographs can be both an aide to memory, and yet anesthetize our brain's recall ability.
The anesthesia going into my arm and up to my brain caused me to lose time, muscle control and memory. The loss of memory I experienced from the anesthesia was what stayed with me, as it brought to mind the parallel experience of looking at photos from the past with no memories of purpose or place.
Unlike memories, photographs do not sustain meaning.
The still photograph preserves only instant appearances. Meaning takes time. A photograph has only an instant, and only records time symbolically. There are two people completing a photograph - the taker and the viewer. As viewers, when we comment on a photograph, by writing descriptive text in a caption, or by talking, this coating of words is not even close to the photographers' experience or what was intended. You can demonstrate this by showing someone one of your photos. Invariably, looking at it, people will talk about their own experiences.
We bring meaning to photographs. Until we do, certain images anesthetize us. Images of the horrors of war anesthetize us. Many war photographs seem outside of time, disconnected from politics, and like eulogy. Looking over them, if anything, we feel sadness and loss, but they also make us numb to the pain and suffering of others. We respond more to photographs that show events we've remembered from the news and to those that came about while we were alive. We seldom are arrested by images for which we lack a personal or experiential context. We distance from them: "that's unreal", "like a movie". Sontag noted: “Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.”
Campany, David. Safety in Numbness. http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography https://www.amazon.com/Photography-Susan-Sontag/dp/0312420099
Henkel, Linda. Point and Shoot Memories.
Berger, John. Uses of Photography. https://sites.uni.edu/fabos/seminar/readings/berger.pdf1. reviving memory of something; reminiscent.
2. retaining memory of something; mindful.
Strolling Boston's Freedom Trail, I wondered "Is everyone here a tourist." I thought I heard Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch, all spoken quickly as sightseers and I passed each other on the trail. Perhaps folks who work in downtown Boston already know their city so well, they have no need to walk the Trail's thin granite line along the city's red brick lanes.
However, I was interested in the Trail, for two reasons. First, I wanted to see where Benjamin Franklin was born. Second, it was a trip down memory lane.
Franklin was born between the Old South Meeting House and the Old Corner Bookstore. That location echoed his reputation as a publisher. There's a landmark to him, just steps off the Freedom Trail. It's wasy to miss. Franklin's birthplace is marked by a small white bust of him, and that's the only thing surviving. The original building where Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was born burned down in 1810.
I walked on. Strolling the Trail, A distant memory of my brother and I at the Kings Chapel Burial Ground entered my mind, as we'd walked the Trail twenty years ago. Many notable folks are buried there, such as John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. However, the person I recognized, reading the plaque, was Mary Chilton. Here headstone inspired the grave of Esther Prim in The Scarlet Letter: Mary Chilton Winslow. At 13, she crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower. She was so excited to see land, legend has it, she leaped out of the landing boat onto Plymouth Rock. My middle name is Winslow, and I recall my brother saying I was named for her.
Strolling up State, to Court, ahead of me the Boston Common beckoned.
On my way to the Public Garden, in the Boston Common, I stopped in the Central Burying Ground off Boylston Street, founded in 1756. There, I searched in vain for Gilbert Stuart's grave, and instead happened on a headstone marking the mass grave burial of people whose bodies were uncovered when the Tremont Street subway was constructed in 1895. I walked on.
"I'm hungry," said the whale.
"It's lunchtime," said the whale.
"Don't get too close, you'll scare the fish," said the whale.
We listened. We watched. The whale leaped skyward. She closed her mouth. Gulp!
She sank back into the blue. Minutes were hours.
Gulls flew. We watched.
Suddenly, an explosion. Millions of little silver fish jumped. The water boiled with fish. She lunged up to gulp down her favorite krill.
Yummy, said the whale !
We cut back the boat engine and pointed away from her. We used a long lens, as not to disturb her, and eased past her, unseen. She rested on top of the ocean. Then, she dove, and with her massive jaws open, lunged up to gulp down more food.
Said the Whale: "The moral of the story is listen to Mother Nature and you will hear and see magical things."
His tropical shirt is soaked. Rain water swirls around his bare feet as he takes three last hits from his cigarette, while reading about the $16 lobster avocado cocktail on the restaurant menu.
Splashing him, a group of cyclists rolls through the water that locals call Lobster Pot lake. Above them all, a Cape Cod sky turns a leaden gray. The single car that creeps through the lake on Commercial street has its low beams on, in an attempt to find its way through the dark street.
A single baby stroller rolls down the street, its hidden passenger tucked safely under a blue hurricane tarp. Tethered to their dogs and kids, the parents mush.
My camera flash blazes. Staying dry under my old black umbrella, it wordlessly freezes vertical slices of rain, soaking them in to its memory card. Nearby, like blossoming flowers, bouquets of umbrellas open up to the sky. Their mizzled owners jaywalk across Commercial, because nobody one wants to wade though Lobster Pot lake.
This lake stretches just twenty-five feet across Commercial to the Governor Bradford restaurant. It reflects the red hues from the Lobster Pot's tubular, cursive neon sign. People are moving swiftly to shelter-- the Cape Cod cloudburst comes during lunch hour, at noon on a September Wednesday.
Between Ryder and Winslow streets, a few souls traverse the street. Punctuated by their dazzling sneakers, a puddle on Commercial street reflects a vinyl Peace Sign next to an equally plastic US flag. Sopping wet, but still velcroed to their owners, the running shoes dash off as their humans search out rain ponchos, but it's too late. . .
Lightning bolts divide the sky. It pours. Then...
Rain drops taper off. The storm clouds dissappear. Sunlight paints the street with diffuse light from the southwest. All the passers-by walk on, except for one young beagle who stops to snarf up a toddler-plopped ice cream cone.
Stuffed into my dry backpack, the camera contemplates memories, hypnotized with images, and dreams of imaginary scenes that escaped its owner's wide eyes. Outside, the afternoon sky is now a pale blue.
I feel lighter, and walk on.
RUINS AND RUST is an original book of fine art, full-color printed photographs.
Portraying the hidden Bahamas in story and image, it explores abandoned rural ruins. These ruins have historical and social relationships that connect them to their surroundings. A ruin shows one thing clearly: the people who built it had strong beliefs and values.
Vigrant visions of abandoned lighthouses, churches and homes expand our knowledge of past cultures. Ruins are living history that let us see a variety of inspiring relationships between people and their land.
Photographing these remote island ruins, I was often surprised by the unexpected. Fixing a point in time was less important than spontaneity and surprise. Finally, adventuring into these ruins for photography enlarged my consciousness and gave me hope for the Bahamas.
I try to encourage two things to happen when making a portrait. People touching, and acceptance.
To support closeness, I say 'reach and touch someone you love.' Playing music helps, because it is natural for people to touch, forget themselves, and even dance together when listening to music they love.
Relaxed portraits flow from our being. As photographers, when we get to know and enjoy the people we photograph, it helps to have acceptance flowing both ways. Without acceptance, the poses look stiff, annoyed, or worse. With acceptance, the photograph is the relationship. Compelling portraits are other-centric, they are about the subject. They are soulfies not selfies.