Meaning in Photography
As we see and experience an event, we make a picture. After time passes, we may rediscover the picture as we bring it up on our screen, but think: "When and where was that taken?" We might even have no memory of taking it. It is easy to take a picture, and easy to forget it, but why do we clean forget our pictures as time passes?
When I was given the anesthetic Versed for a medical procedure, I went "under." I "woke up" 45 minutes afterward. I regained consciousness, but had no memory of either getting dressed after surgery or answering questions from several people. Retrograde amnesia is a common Versed side effect. It is typical for people to be unaware that their memory is impaired by the chemistry of anesthesia.
Anesthesiologists have a tough time telling what they are measuring when they try to measure when someone "loses" consciousness. Brain research might suggest that thalamus-cortex connections may be involved in the anesthetic induced changes in consciousness, and problems with movement arise from cerebellar-thalamus systems. Even from a scientific viewpoint, many questions remain about the mystery of consciousness and memory. Memories are suspended in our experiences of a specific time, a certain place, weather conditions, the light quality and our entire perceptual field. Human perception is far more complex than any camera can capture; we tend to remember those experiences that are vivid, emotional and involve all our senses. Taking a picture does not demand our full experience or emotional attention. Picture taking is an easy act. Unless we pay attention to the entire scene and study its details in depth, we may not recall the image later on.
Anesthesia puts us "under." The metaphor has an up-down orientation. It is ontological because it refers to anesthesia as a thing that a person can be underneath. In general, things that are "up" are good. Health and life are up. Down things like death and sickness are bad. Somewhere in the middle, anesthesia suspends us between life and death. This is the nature of photographs as well. They suspend us in time.
My Versed-induced loss of memory reminds me of photographs I've taken and forgotten. Looking back at them, I pause. I have no memory of making the picture, or the event's meaning. Unlike a vivid memory, a photograph does not sustain meaning. Meaning takes time and experience; photos have only the symbolic appearance of time. Still photographs preserve instant appearance as the camera sees, so a photograph of an event is as biased as our memory of it.
Perhaps images anesthetize us in unique ways. In a literary, metaphorical sense, are we using our cameras as IV delivery tubes for anesthesia to numb our pain?
We see pictures of war every day. War photography in particular, as writer and critic Susan Sontag noted in On Photography, numbs us to the suffering of others. Although we see the pain and the horror, it is in the past. The war may be far away and, if we have not been to the front lines, its personal context and meaning are missing.
There are at least two people in every photograph. The photographer has a context for the event that viewers do not share. Unless a viewer has prior awareness in her mind of the event photographed, she will not have a moral response or empathetic feeling for those suffering from the event.
RITUAL REQUIRES MEMORY
Photography used to be a ritual. It was expensive, slow and time consuming in the 19th century. With smaller formats, faster films, and mobile cameras, photography became a reflex. it became pocketable, airborne and reflexive. The rituals of photography that took time was displaced by quick, surface scans of events that are quickly forgotten. Memory is the key to bringing the ritual back into the craft. And perhaps, contemplation and reflection are partly the keys to memory.
Because the camera only takes a sliver of time, removes an instant from the flow, and fixes appearance, it has a complex relationship to nature. Cameras use equations and algorithms to transform light into a picture. We perceive nature, and we see pictures, but they are not the same. There is the thing, and there is the photograph of the thing, forever separate. A photograph lives through appearances. Human visual perception lives in being. My photograph, on its own, may often have little relationship to your experience.
Photo journalism adds text that personalizes pictures. Words and pictures are more powerful than either alone. Slice a war photograph out of context and we may see it on our screen without time, place or event references. Include the text that this mother is holding her infant child killed in a bombing by a US-Saudi war plane, and the context lets us more fully experience the authenticity of the photograph. Media itself can not do this. Taking a picture with a film camera does not make a picture more "authentic", for example. Only the viewer who invests emotion and meaning into a photograph will .
We respond more to photographs that show events we remember from the news and those that came about while we were alive. We react differently to photographs that have music playing with them. We feel the pain of a photograph when we know and experience its personal context. How many times has someone told you "I have a picture just like that" when in fact it is nothing like your picture? Our seeing corner of perception and experience even gives us a politics for interpreting photographs. Susan Sontag wrote: “Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.”
Without a framework and personal context, we can become numb to photographs. In this way, a series of pictures of violence can anesthetize us to the suffering of those depicted.
John Berger, the noted art critic, said "the camera records in order to forget." So, what is the solution?
Sati is the Sanskrit word, centuries old, for bringing the past into the present. Remindfulness is the distant past, plus the recent past, that comes or is brought into the present as a corrective method to aide action and decision. Remindfulness preserves meaning through looking way back in our personal time. Being remindful of the recent past, we can bring it into the present. The practice gives a hopeful aspect to our photography and a framework for positive change. For instance, thinking back on a photography workshop reminds us of good work we did there, useful techniques we learned, and warm feelings of intimacy with the other participants.. A photograph does not preserve meaning.
How can we restore meaning to a photograph? Invest time in it. Make a print for your wall. Then go a bit deeper. Understand that memory has an enormous number of associations. It is a three dimensional web of associations, into which thought, hearing, smell, taste, touch, sense of balance, the sense of internal organs, the sense of the passage of time, and human proprioception are all woven. Know that vision is limited to a very thin slice of electromagnetic radiation. Not just the time we invest, but the more vivid our experience, and the more we reflect upon it, the more we will benefit from bringing it back, remindfully.
Remindful photography is when the living take the past into themselves. The past becomes part of the soul, and all photographs can acquire a living context within the span of one's life. The key is to share them so they are woven into social, political, everyday, economic and personal context.
Keywords: remindfulness, photography, awareness, senses, three-dimensional remindfulness, remindful, storytelling, media, communication, John Berger, Susan Sontag, photo critic, critique, vision, meaning of photography, context of photography, About Looking, on photography, seeing, deeper seeing, mindfulness, remindful, association in photography.
On Photography https://www.amazon.com/Photography-Susan-Sontag/dp/0312420099
Uses of Photography. https://sites.uni.edu/fabos/seminar/readings/berger.pdf
On January 25, 2017, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His book About Looking, is a collection of essays that I use in all my field experiences with students of photography.
Hashtags add dimension and context. Without text or hastags, this picture is a room in a building. Add these, and the context becomes three dimensional, a radial array of associations and meaning: #National #Historic #Landmark #America #Library of Congress #Thomas Jefferson #Jefferson Library #Thomas Jefferson Building #Beaux Arts #Washington DC #PaulPeltz #architecture #interior #Busts of Presidents #paintings #sculpture #library #American history