Meaning in Photography
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 deliberately slow down to make a photograph. To experience, and remember what we photograph, we act. 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 photographer's abilities 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 plot 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. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Linda_Henkel/publication/259207719_Point-and Shoot_Memories_The_Influence_of_Taking_Photos_on_Memory_for_a_Museum_Tour/links/5579f17708aeb6d8c0205b18.pdf
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.