Remembering through photography

The photographic memory

Schwarzwald, Canon A1, some cheap roll.

It seems obvious that photography serves as a medium to preserve moments. They show us what is already gone. More particular, a moment that was and can not happen again. So of course a lot of people (including me) use photography as a way to remember certain events, people, birthdays, vacations, family gatherings etc. In this sense, taking a photograph mostly happens in order to fulfill the wish to keep a special moment. No matter how simple or small that moment, the desire to capture it is the common basis of every photograph. But although this is undoubtly true, it does not answer the question if photography actually serves well in preserving the past and assists in remembering our past.

The reason why I want to adress this rather unusal question is because it can be quite disturbing. If you don’t want to think too much about it, you might want to stop reading now. If you want to stick with me, let’s get into it. As I mentioned above, in certain ways, a photograph serves well as a source for the recollection of the past. I truely believe that when I look into old photo albums I remember things that I otherwise (without photos) would have forgotten. But here is the problem. With time and more distance to the actual experience of that moment, I feel like I more and more recreate my memory of these moments starting from the pictures. So I see the images and try to ‘imagine’ how that moment was.

Shouldn’t it be the other way round? Shouldn’t I (only) include the picture inside my genuine memory?

At this point, one has to differentiate between photos that one has taken ¬†¬†oneself and images that others have taken (e.g. a picture of myself that my grandfather has taken). Although the problem concerning the loss of genuine memory probably is true for both situations, the significant difference is that pictures that you have taken yourself actually show your point of view at that exact time. You might remember your intent why you wanted to shoot this certain image. In my opinion, this helps in order to preserve the genuine memory of that moment. It gets more difficult in the second case. When you see pictures of yourself, they were naturally made by someone else. Thus it was someone else’s point of view. Of course you have been there, but your memory of that moment differs from that point of view. It is this discrepancy that has an influence on our recollection of experiences. We try to rebuilt the memory with someone else’s point of view.

So is photography really a weak instrument for remembering certain things?

Although, this might be more true for photos that you haven’t taken yourself, I still would say it is not. Why not? Because our memory in general is constructed and changes through time. We glorify certain feelings in connection to specific moments whereas we ignore others. Our perception of the past is most probably not genuine either. Photographs, due to their nature, seem to be more accurate (of course they not) and therefore help to recollect certain details of the past. But because we can actually decide when to take a photo and when not, we already construct our memory. We decide intentionally what moment to keep and what moment to ignore. So in a nutshell, although photographs affect our construction of memory, it still does it in a rather similar way than our memory works anyway.

If you take this too seriously, you could ask whether it is better to take more pictures to have a more precise and detailed ‘help’ for your memory or whether you better don’t take any pictures to leave your memory unaffected. Although I gave this (some might say rather useless) question quite some attention, I still conclude for myself that enjoying photography and enjoying looking at photos is the better way of dealing with it.

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  1. Great post. I never really thought that pictures taken from my perspective could construct a stronger memory. Of course we are still constructing what we were thinking at that moment and what led us to take that picture. I sometimes delete pictures that are bad or that I don’t want to remember. Like you said we are creating an external data store of our memories with photographs and videos. A good question is do we rely on this external data store or use it to enhance our memories? And what effect does that have on our brains?

    1. Hey bg,

      of course through deleting pictures, we also influence the memory. The questions you’ve raised are exactly the questions I wanted to adress. ;)


  2. [...] Remembering through photography ( [...]

  3. Hey, that is a great article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. [...] what circumstances we judge an image as “great”. When I wrote about the function of photography as a help to remember, I realized there is a lot more behind it and I asked myself, what is the general idea of [...]

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