Remembering a Photograph as the Event: Your Memory Isn't What You Think It Is!

Almost everyone has a cell phone these days and by extension, a phone camera. This means that anyone with a phone can create a decent enough image. To clarify, I’m not trying to debate whether someone is a “real photographer” or not. Instead, my intention is to persuade you to approach photography in a more considered and intentional way.

Susan Sontag is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I believe her works on photography to be mandatory reading for all image-makers. Sontag passed away in 2004, just before smartphones became popular, which makes her ideas on the ubiquity of images even more poignant.

Photography lets us see and experience things we may not have otherwise. If I touch just the right places on my phone, I can look at pictures of penguins within a few waves of my hand if I wanted to. I can do this without being in the presence of the birds. With just the right stroke of keys on my computer keyboard, I can look at many images of clowns on unicycles if I want to. I can think of almost anything I want, and then, I can probably look for a photograph of it. I don’t actually need to have the thing in front of me.

Where this falls apart, Sontag argues, is that the photograph becomes memory:

People remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs ... that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding—and remembering. ... To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.

I remember I got into a big live performance phase, where I'd photograph performers including musicians, dancers, and theater. I shot the likes of A Great Big World and RuPaul. I don’t remember any of those performances, only the images I made during them. For me, this is probably tempered by the act of creating the images; but there is an extension to images which you yourself haven’t authored.

This all seems trivial for the most part. Does it matter? Probably not. Like with anything, though, what does matter is what the narrative is and who is telling it (and to whose benefit).

Sontag spoke more in the context of war. For the purpose of this article, I’d extend conflict imagery to mean conflicted imagery, such as but not limited to imagery in which the image is in conflict with either the subject of the image, the circumstances under which the image was captured, or the intentions of the image-maker.

Through history, men have been making art with women muses. Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey created the term “male gaze” to mean the depiction of women in film as sexual objects. The male gaze is quite literally how women are portrayed by male directors, for male protagonists, and how this portrayal in film is intended for male audiences.

The saying goes that “the internet is for porn.” I’d have coined: “photography is for porn.” At the turn of the 19th century, as photography became more popular, so did the erotic postcard. Legally, these erotic postcards did not show female pubic hair, genitals, and nipples, but did allude to them. By contrast, postcards exoticized people of color by not only allowing these "rules" to not apply, but by breaking them in a constructed image of otherness. Subjects who were people of color were often shown nude or partially nude and were often on location to further exoticize their "nativeness."

As photographers, we are quite literally image-makers. We are also recordkeepers. There is immense power in that.

With that power comes the responsibility to question narratives. Who is this story about? Who is telling this story? And who is benefiting from the telling?

These aren’t easy questions to ask (or even answer). They require immense mental and emotional labor. They may require a re-learning of how we approach photography. But I truly believe that empowering people to tell their own stories will create a broader, more inclusive society.

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5 Comments

Johnny Kiev's picture

Error in the title, Photogragh?

Ali Choudhry's picture

Good catch! Thank you. Updated. :)

Timothy Roper's picture

You can't tell much of anything from just a photo. Take a now-ubiquitous photo of an old Afghan man. What can we tell from just the photo? That he killed his sister in an honor killing? That he risked his life to build a girl's school. That he killed Soviets back in his youth? That he killed US soldiers? People read into a photo what they want to read into a photo, and it's always changing based on narratives outside the photo.

RT Simon's picture

What you are describing is that you personally experience an event through the practice of making photos.

So do I.

To understand this better, ask yourself if you would enjoy an event as much WITHOUT your camera?

I would see a series of potentially missed images. Photographers tend to see in frames.

Another indication is, do you see in different focal lengths? Regular humans do not.

Ali Choudhry's picture

This article has definitely conflated memory as a product of creating images with memory of seeing images others have created.

I think the latter is better illustrated by examples of images for which you (and I) weren't present.
For example, I wasn't there in the Vietnam was buy my "memory" of the event is through Nick Ut's Napalm girl.
Alternatively, I've never been to Seattle but can "remember" Mary Ellen Mark's images of the kids there.

It's definitely a tricky concept and I agree I need to think more on it myself to understand it better.