How will we perceive the world when even our most intimate memories become device-dependent?
In this essay, I will be discussing the impact that photography has on human memory. I will discuss how machine recorded events allow people to believe that they hold memories of an event that they did not witness first hand, how a photograph holds knowledge rather than memory, how technological advances have impacted our memories and I will question the consequences of machine recorded events on human experience.
Do photographs hold memories?
Taking a photograph during our everyday lives has become something very common, but why do we feel the need to take so many photographs? Is it to help us remember events? Do we worry that without the photographic evidence, we will one day forget? As photography has advanced and almost everyone in the 21st century owns a camera of some sort, more and more photographs are being taken every day. In fact, according to Business Insider UK it was predicted that in 2017, 1.2 trillion digital photographs would have been taken around the world. With 85% of those photographs predicted to have been taken on smart phones, it’s a wonder why we feel the need to take so many photographs.
The idea of memory is something a lot of artists and photographers question and explore in their work.
The Reserve of the Dead Swiss, by Christian Boltanski is an installation created in 1990. It presents 42 photographic portraits of men, women and children. Boltanski has appropriated photographs that he sourced from obituaries that had been published in a Swiss Newspaper. Boltanski collected these photographs over many years and elected these 42 photographs at random. He then rephotographed the photographs from the Newspaper and increased the image sizes, so the heads were almost life size. The quality of the photographs is poor and leading to the identity of each individual being distorted. The photographs do not hold any captions or names within the installation, which denies the audience from being able to put a name or an age to a face; this removes the identity of the dead.
Along with the word ‘Dead’ in the installations title, the white cloth like material underneath the portraits stimulates the curtain at a funeral. These two factors are the only way we as an audience are able to understand that the people in the photographs are dead.
When the audience learns more about those who are portrayed in the installation, they may begin to feel sad, negative emotions towards the anonymous people. They may start to question how they died. Questions will build up in the audience, but truthful answers cannot be given. The audience may then start to build up their own answers to the questions, creating their own false information about the work.
Similarly, around the world, people may have built up or have been fed false information about photographs that have been taken of themselves throughout their childhood.
In my early work, I pretend to speak about my childhood, yet my real childhood had disappeared. I have lied about it so often that I no longer have a real memory of this time, and my childhood has become for me some kind of universal childhood, not a real one.
– Christian Boltanski, in conversation with Tamar Garb 1996
As Boltanski says, we do not hold real memories of our childhood. It is thought to be scientifically impossible to hold memories from our own decoding before the age of 2.
Most adults will however, have knowledge of what happened before that time. It is thought that memories before the age of 2 are vulnerable to false ideas and are therefore considered to be less accurate. It is also thought that we can hold memories up until the age of 11 and they not be an honest representation of what really happened. Just as we do with an object in our homes, we must stop telling ourselves we hold memory of photographs from our childhood and we must realise that what we hold is in fact knowledge taken from other people’s memories.
Whilst photographs of ourselves at a young age have a less reliable narrative to those photographs published in the press, both sets are based on knowledge; unless we were at the scene of the event.
For example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks may not be something everyone can say they witnessed or something they may have not even been alive to witness; but as it was a thoroughly documented historical event, which now holds a major stance in American and World history, aided by photographs, a lot of people can say they know what happened behind the photograph.
Similarly, we cannot say we categorically remember what happened, for example in and around the photograph of ourselves on our first birthday, as we were too young to remember. We only hold knowledge of such an event based on someone else’s memory, such as a parent.
Something we must also accept is that a photograph will never tell the whole story. We are only able to visualise what is in the frame. We have no evidence of what is outside the frame. Our memories may therefore become reliant and based on just that on that one frame, leading our memories of the event to be erased and perhaps only focusing on that one moment. On the other hand, in some instances we may be able to use that one frame to trigger our memory of the event and everything that happened around that one photograph.
When we look at something global and historical like 9/11 there are multiple photographs and various video footage from different locations and angles that allows those who weren’t there and have never been to the exact locations, to build up an image in our heads of what was around the event.
Do photographs hold memories for events that we haven’t witnessed first-hand?
Today, our memories almost never originate from our own decoding but are almost exclusively machine-recorded events. How will that affect our structuring of both the world and our individual psyche? How will we be remodelled by our multiplying worlds and relinquished memories? Is this what theoreticians of technological culture are talking about? When we examine the entanglement of biology and culture, are we witnessing the offloading of our phenomenology onto technology?
(Dyens O. 2001. p77.)
Machine-recorded events are becoming a huge part of 21st Centenary life, with the growth of the news and social media almost everything now is being recorded through a machine; whether it be a mobile phone or a professional news camera. We are made aware every day of different events that occur around the world, even though we aren’t able to witness everything ourselves first-hand, we are able to visualise the event which allows us to form our own memories of everything.
These memories could be described as flashbulb memories.
A flashbulb memory is a detailed and vivid memory that is stored on one occasion and retained for a lifetime.
Myers C E. (2006) Memory Loss and the Brain. http://www.memorylossonline.com/glossary/flashbulbmemory.html [Accessed: 27th November 2017]
A fitting example of this is the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in America. The attack was claimed by al-Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist group. 19 members hijacked four passenger aircrafts operated by United and American airlines. Two of the planes collided with the North and South towers of the World Trade Centre complex as a consequence of the hijackings. As an outcome of the impact both towers subsided.
The third aircraft was crashed into the Pentagon, the United States Department of Defence in Virginia. This caused the Western side of the building to cave in.
The fourth aircraft was gliding in the direction of the White House in Washington DC, but as passengers tried to stop the hijackers, the aircraft crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township, near Shanksville in Pennsylvania. There were 2996 deaths, including the 19 hijackers.
Whilst a couple of hundred people witnessed this disaster first-hand, billions of people globally were enlightened about the crisis due to it being recorded by the witnesses on their mobile phones; making the 9/11 attacks a machine-recorded event. News broadcasters were at the aftermath minutes, hours, days & weeks after the event, recording the consequences, allowing the public around the world to catch sight of what was happening.
In the days immediately after, mass memorials and observations were held and photographs of the dead and missing were posted.
As photographs of the attack and the victims instantaneously reached TV screens, newspapers and the world-wide web, citizens were able to mourn the deaths of innocent people. From then onwards, the event would be universally memorialized.
The public were able to visualise the impact of the attack and empathise with the people affected by the devastation of the incident.
In effect, every year, on September 11th, people remember those whose lives were lost in the catastrophic calamity. Minutes silences are held and many remembrance functions are held all around the world. In 2002 there was a temporary installation from March 11th – April 14th, the Tribute in Light memorial; an installation of 88 flashlights at the groundwork of where the World Trade Centre towers once stood. The memorial was put in motion again in 2003 to mark the second anniversary of the attack. Annually (on September 11th) the Tribute in Light is illuminated. There was a competition to compose a relevant and suitable memorial on the site of the World Trade Centre towers. In 2006 the triumphant design was elected; Reflecting Absence, a duo of reflecting pools in the foundation of the towers, enclosed by a register of the victims’ names in an underground memorial zone, this was completed on September 11th, 2011, 10 years on from the catastrophe. In May 2014, a museum opened on the WTC site.
Photographs and videos being shared immediately, made the disaster for those people around the world, who had no personal connection to the disaster, actually have something they could connect with on a personal level. But should the public be allowed to connect to this attack on a personal level? Although they have access to footage of the event, can this flashbulb memory (which originates from photographic and video footage) really be an accurate representation of what really happened? Flashbulb memories are quick and vivid; they are usually linked to a photograph. Whilst some people may be able to link on a personal level to the event, the vast majority of the public, particularly those who aren’t American citizens, only hold vivid memories through photographs of the event.
Flashbulb memory even stands true for those who were born after 2001. With the aid of photographs and machine recorded footage, they are able to see the event and create their own memories of it. Photographs and video footage of the disaster are easily accessible on the internet. Every year leading up to & on September 11th, footage and photographs are in the news, reminding us to remember those who lost their lives and were affected by the attacks.
With the addition of museums and the Tribute in Light being publicised over recent years, it could be said that the 9/11 attacks are becoming some sort of advertisement in the news. As there is so much machine-recorded footage from the disaster, it is easy to advertise and easy to remind people of this catastrophe. People become more aware of the disaster every year and believe they hold their own memories of the disaster. The vast majority of the public around the world do not hold first-hand memoires of the 9/11 attacks, they simply hold knowledge.
Knowledge is a person’s understanding of something, it is the information they hold of an event. Knowledge is the awareness that people hold. Billions of people around the world are aware of the 9/11 attacks.
Memory is recalling or recognising previous experiences. An experience is something you encounter first-hand.
Therefore, for most people, they hold knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and various other events that they have knowledge of.
We struggle to differentiate the difference between the two and often label knowledge as memory.
This could be said to be confirmation that
our memories almost never originate from our own decoding but are almost exclusively machine-recorded events.
We do of course create our own memories in our day-to-day lives as we encounter and experience the world and people around us, we are also surrounded by machine-recorded materials throughout our days too. As televisions have become a staple part of furniture in households all around the world, we are being fed machine-recorded knowledge almost every day; either in the news, on television programmes or even on our mobile phone devices now through social media.
Perhaps with the aid of technology we are creating two types of memories. The first type being memories from our own decoding, memories of something we have experienced. The second type of memory being the memory we hold that has been built upon information and knowledge that we have been fed by the media. Of course, News outlets have been around for thousands of years now, but as technologies have advanced we are now able to visualise our news through video and photographic footage; this allows us to remember the knowledge we are fed a lot easier and confuse it with our own personal memories.
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How advances in technology have impacted our memory
As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any human activity that does not occur within this house. All the affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house. And the house is still changing; it is still being built as well as being demolished.
Ursula Franklin, The Read World of Technology
As technology advances, human interaction and activity is becoming almost entirely technology based. We rely on technology to extract what is going on around the world and to share what we are doing within in our world. Our personal lives are slowly becoming less personal as we share day to day activities on social media platforms and are putting our personal detail into technological data bases. Whether it be our phones, computers, televisions or even watches, we are all slowly becoming reliant on technology to live our lives. The boost in technology the last few decades means that almost everyone in a (particularly in first world country) owns a phone that has a camera attached to it; allowing more photographs to be taken and to be shared.
The family photo album has slowly made the move from being a physical album kept on the book shelf in our family home, to becoming a digital album on social media platforms such as Facebook. As photographs are becoming less personal, sitting round with friends and family looking at physical photographs is soon becoming a thing of the past. As photographs are being shared online, they seem to lose their personal value; allowing the photographs to be on the world wide web, allows people from all around the world to see your photographs. Perhaps when we share photographs online we are allowing the intimacy that used to be in photographs to be lost.
Daniel Blaufuks is a Portuguese photographer who is interested in memory, he looks at the difference between private and public memory and how a photograph may play a role in freezing memories.
In an email conversation with David Campany, Daniel Blaufaks said
I am going to sound old now, but I do come from a time when we kept letters, photos, tickets, notes, etc. as memories or souvenirs from something or someone special. Some people still do that, because they need to have things that are touchable and not virtual. But the fact is that most of our communication now is lost in computers and hard drives and it will be interesting to see how historians deal with that in the future.
Blaufuks D.(2012). p28-29.
The issue in the future for historians may be that there is much photographic material to filter through, it may become very time consuming and finding that special, meaningful photograph may become a challenge.
Even if photographs are not shared on via the world wide web, it is more common in this day in age to have photographs stored on mobile phones or computers rather than keeping the physical photograph.
This is mainly down to the rise in popularity of smart phones and digital SLR cameras and the downfall in analogue photography. Before digital SLR’s had been invented in the 1970’s, everyone who owned a camera would shoot on negative film or slide transparencies. Families therefore created large, physical archives of photographs. It wasn’t until the 1990’s however, that the digital SLR camera started to overcome the original analogue film cameras. And by the 21st Century, digital SLR’s had completely overtaken the original SLR camera.
As Blaufaks said, it will be ‘interesting to see how historians deal with that in the future’ – surely accessing photographic materials from those who have passed away or those who will become historic figures, will be a lot easier than it was previously been. All that will be needed is a password or a hard drive to access years’ worth of photographic information or evidence (in some cases.)
As digital SLR cameras have entered the world, it has become easier and cheaper to take as many photographs as you wish. With SLR cameras, you would only have as many chances to get a photograph as the roll of film would take (36 for example.) With the uprising of digital SLR’s and the addition of SD cards, it became easy and cheap to take as many photographs as you so wish. The development of camera phones in the 2000’s has grown massively and now almost every corner you turn (especially in first world countries) people own a phone with a built-in camera. As the cameras on mobile phones have become of great quality and good digital SLR cameras are being sold at extortionate prices, the digital SLR camera has fallen in the hierarchy of the public eye. Every day and family photographs are now being taken on mobile phones. Taking photographs is no longer something that is deemed to be ‘special’ or kept for special events. It is now the normal thing to do and many people do it every day. Photographs have lost their intimacy, as have they have lost their quality of being special. It was predicted that in 2017 there will be 3,934,500,000,000 digital photographs stored on hard drives or some sort of digital/computer storage system.
It isn’t just the value of the photographs that has changed since digital SLR’s have become the norm; it’s our memories that have changed too. It seems that we take photographs of anything and everything, just because we can; we have various unlimited digital storage systems available to us at the touch of a finger. We are now taking photographs with the purpose of reminding ourselves about something, rather than having a physical human experience with something or someone.
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What are the consequences of machine recorded events invading human experience?
Lieux de memoire arise out of a sense that there is no such thing as spontaneous memory, hence that we must create archives, mark anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies and authenticate documents, because such things no longer happen as a matter of course.
Nora P. Documents of Contemporary Art; Memories. Page 61.
The introduction of social media to the world in the early 2000’s turned out to be a huge hit for the creators and founders of the platforms. As we are nearing the end of this decade we can categorically say that technological advances of social media have almost taken over the world and have certainly become a huge part of people’s lives; particularly teenagers and young adults.
When we attend family events and gatherings with friends and colleagues to celebrate various anniversaries and achievements, photographs are almost always taken on everyone’s devices; typically, smart phones. These photographs are often uploaded and shared online via a social media platform.
Group photographs have been the norm for generations now, but what has changed between generations is that our photographs are not only shot digitally but they are shared digitally on social media platforms.
When photographs are shared via a social media platform, hundreds to thousands of people can immediately see these photographs, each photograph is there available for anyone around the world to view. When people see the shared photograph, they are likely to assume that the event was great fun, stress free, there were no arguments; it was as glamorous as the photograph shows. There is no true representation of what went on.
The photograph becomes a staged event.
Social media platforms have become a major sensation over recent years, people are even able to make a living from running an Instagram account should they have enough followers. Companies are looking for young, attractive people who are seen to be ‘role models’ online, to advertise their brand. Keeping up appearances on social media now seems to be just as important as in person. It has become somewhere future employers are starting to look at potential employees. As technology has advanced and is slowly taking over, it is looking to be very possible that human experience is no longer as spontaneous as it used to be. Everything is planned and a lot of the time events have to be captured by a camera, almost as proof to others that you have been somewhere, met someone or achieved something. Photographs have lost their special quality that they used to have. Taking a photograph is seen as a simple activity, that requires little thought other than point and shoot; reasoning behind most photographs has become non-existent. Smartphones are slowly destroying the artistic practise of photography as it has disengaged a wide audience. Younger generations are not as interested in photography as perhaps their parents and grandparents once were. A photograph is something so simple to them, how could it be interesting?
Before digital SLR cameras and phone cameras, film cameras were the only way people were able to take photograph. Each roll of film took up to 36 photographs and the film was expensive. This meant people who cameras would want to get each photograph just right and they wouldn’t waste a photo; each photograph taken was often thought out. Photographs were something special in most families, thought went into them. Even with instant film cameras, such as Polaroids, the subject and composure was thought about. Not everyone had a camera as they were quite expensive to buy, as well as run. The photographs would have been stored in family photo albums and would be shown either in a little book or on a projector. Photographs held great personal value and it wasn’t often they would be shared for the whole world to see; without the internet and social media that was almost quite impossible to do so.
To conclude, it is thought that scientifically we humans cannot remember events that we encountered before the age of two and most adults will struggle to accurately remember what they before the age of eleven. We rely heavily on photographic material to build up memories of events, combined with relying on older people’s memories. As technology has advanced, we have been able to start collecting knowledge and materials to form memories of something that we never witnessed first-hand. What we label as our memory, is starting to become less and less from our own decoding as we are relying on photographs and other machine recorded evidence.