The Conundrum of Remembering


I’ve always been fascinated by our ability to remember, an exercise that has been largely a result of how we attach meaning to the things we experience. But what’s more intriguing is how we sometimes end up lending meaning to the ‘objects’ that are a part of the experience, even if it has got nothing to do with the original intent or purpose of the object. Here’s what I mean…

While growing up in Kuwait, Fridays were dedicated to prayer, rest and music. It would either be country music or something by Remo Fernandes or Lorna Cordeiro. What I particularly remember from this time is Conway Twitty’s ‘Don’t Cry Joni’, a duet he sang along with his daughter Joni Lee. Dad loved the song and played it frequently. I distinctly recall a particular evening (I was around six or seven at the time), when dad lifted me in his arms and danced with me to the song. Even over 20 years later, it is this memory that has continued to fuel my fondness for it. It’s the song I go back to whenever I am homesick or missing dad. However, ‘Don’t Cry Joni’ had nothing to do with these feelings. It wasn’t a song about a father’s love for his daughter, but about a 15-year-old girl falling in love with her 22-year-old neighbour. I was too young to figure this out at the time, and even when I did understand it later, it didn’t change what I felt for the song.

This realisation has perplexed me since then… of the way we choose to feel and remember certain experiences, and even of our ability to borrow from previous experiences, and make new ones with the things that we have just encountered. Don’t we do this with photographs as well? We cannot possibly have experienced everything that we see in pictures. Yet, we are able to empathise or feel alarmed when looking at photographs of war or poverty, or feel elated looking at someone’s wedding pictures. Or when we look at a landscape and feel wonder for the immensity of nature and of the unknown, and yet, are also capable of feeling isolated and haunted by the same qualities.

I like this quality about photographs… They’re shapeshifters, in terms of how they make you feel, and how they allow you to experience them the way you want to. Isn’t it better when pictures aren’t forceful, when they don’t answer questions, but exist as contradictions to what you already know? I sometimes find this lacking, especially when photographers go into lengths discussing their work, or try too hard in making the obvious even more apparent.

But I am curious about how our memory or our ability to retain what we see is affected by the sheer volume of photographs that is at our disposal today. How much are we absorbing of the instant ‘connections’ that we make when we see pictures on Facebook or Instagram? Are we still able to attach meaning and our personal experiences to the images that we encounter? That’s why we have galleries and museums, as they provide a suitable environment for absorption and introspection that comes from viewing art. It’s just not the same when you’re viewing images on your desktop or phone. The cellphone may be your personal camera and your personal gallery, but this intimacy has also resulted in a laid-back attitude towards how we interact with the images we make, and those made by others. It seems that accessibility has made it almost impossible to digest photographs meaningfully. So does this affect the quality of images being made? Certainly… After all, who doesn’t want to make a ‘memorable’ picture. I bet someone has already figured out a formula for this. And so, we see the same kind of imagery and go on to replicate them. The more we attempt to duplicate a certain moment, we’re stripping it of its ability to instigate more questions.

John Stathatos, a photographer and writer, offered his thoughts on the subject… “There is one other quality specific to the medium: its unique relationship with reality, a relationship which has little to do with ‘truth’, visual or otherwise, but everything to do with the emotional charge generated by the photograph’s operation as a memory trace.”

I wonder what we are going to remember from this period of photographic explosion.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Better Photography.