The Role of Resonance in Remembrance


For those who have read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind will be familiar with The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a fabled library set in the old city of Barcelona. It is unlike any library that you’ve ever seen or been to. A labyrinth of intriguing and diabolical secret passageways, the structure houses an unimaginable repository of books that have either been lost or forgotten in time, and those that were designated to be destroyed. It’s protected by a covert society of guardians, who keep the books, its history and memory, for those who come seeking it. The idea originated from the thoughts that Zafón had on the destruction of memory and history. In an interview with TIME magazine, he says, “I always thought that we are what we remember, and the less we remember, the less we are.”

One of the defining reasons behind why I enjoy reading is because it compels me to imagine. It’s fascinating how words can paint a detailed picture of a scene, yet the grass is never the same shade of green as imagined by those reading about it. The more you surrender to the written word, the more you ruminate over it, and the chances of you remembering how it made you feel, years later, are that much stronger. Music, too, has that ability, except that there aren’t words to dictate your imagination. A sonata by Beethoven or Bach or Chopin can be interpreted in innumerable ways, and what you associate it with will become the defining memory of that composition. It all boils down to resonance. This is why certain memories thrive longer than others. But does this apply to photography as well?

At its very intrinsic level, photography is a means of documentation. People make photographs to remember. But it’s the awareness, beforehand, of something being worthy enough to make a record of, that is missing today. We live in a culture where every aspect of our being is celebrated with a picture, almost like a daily digital log. It’s great, if there’s a purpose to it. The intent doesn’t have to be a radical one. But what matters is recognising the thing that struck you about the subject that you just photographed, and the connection, however primal, that you made with the moment. What surprises me is that we don’t treat books or music the same way, and are quite selective when picking them out. This brings me to the following questions—What is your fondest memory of a picture that you shot? What were the circumstances like? So often we get caught up in making that one single photograph, that we forfeit the bigger picture. What remains in the end are several disjointed snippets of various moments that we claim to have ‘experienced’, thereby placing the burden of memory and remembrance on our cameras and cellphones—picture repositories that we seldom go back to.

The Belgian painter and writer, Erik Pavernagie, had said, “We are what we remember. If we lose our memory, we lose our identity, and our identity is the accumulation of our experiences. When we walk down memory lane, it can be unconsciously, willingly, selectively, impetuously or sometimes grudgingly. By following our stream of consciousness, we look for lost time and things past. Some reminiscences become anchor points that can take another scope with the wisdom of hindsight.” In our quest to become or appear involved or transparent to those who we choose to share our lives with, we’re losing the ability to make meaningful connections with our experiences. And without these connections, we are left with nothing but incoherent fragments floating around our memory space. What are we without our memories? How do we evolve or move forward without knowing who we were, or how we came to be?

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget,” John Berger had said.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Better Photography.