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Photography and the disruption of memory and meaning
Tim Fawns, University of Edinburgh
By taking and sharing photographs, we are positioned within powerful communication
networks that influence our personal and social identities. Over time, ownership and
control is lost as our photographs gain performativity that allows them to divert from the
purposes, spaces and times for which they are created. These issues are magnified by a
number of technological, cultural and economic factors that accompany the evolution of
ubiquitous digital media and their associated tools. Given the role that photographs play
in the reconstruction of individual and collective memory and history, it is worth
considering what is captured by the camera and what happens after the shutter closes.
If there is a case for the statement ‘the camera never lies’, it is in the sense that what is
produced by the camera becomes part of the ‘truth’. The photograph is analogous to
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history, where what is written down becomes, over time, what we believe to have
happened. This article is a reflection on the nature of personal photography and how it
changes the people who engage with it.
Photography: Truth, representation or performance?
Although most photographs look very much like the scene that was photographed, there
are a number of important differences. First, the photograph is limited in terms of the
space it represents. It leaves out what is above, below, behind, to the right and to left of
its edges and one cannot look behind the objects it shows (Szarkowski 1980). It flattens
and crops the world (Christmann 2008). Second, although it is of a time, a photograph
contains little or no time. Other than what can be inferred from visual clues, it does not
show what happened before and after the shutter closed. Photographs leave out touch,
taste, smell and sound, containing only visual information, which has been manipulated
by the interplay between environmental and technological factors (e.g. the qualities of the
camera, its handling of lighting and movement). The relationship between material reality
and its photographic representation is further compromised through intentional and
unintentional effects of camera settings and post-production processes.
Even before it takes a photograph, a camera is a powerful object. It changes the
behaviour of those behind and in front of it (Sontag 1977), introducing a performative
quality to both posing for and taking photographs. Thus, scenes are often altered and
contrived in pre-production as people stop what they are doing and smile, assemble for a
group shot or, perhaps, attempt to affect a ‘natural’ pose. Those not in the photograph
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may feel compelled to watch or to walk around the ‘photographic space’ (a notion studied
by Stanley Milgram (1977)), itself a clue to the spatial limitations of the photograph,
though it is likely this compulsion is being eroded as it becomes impractical to avoid
every photograph. In any case, an intrusive photographic event is inserted into lived
experience, changing the very thing we wish to preserve.
Just as a diary often betrays ‘an awareness of its potential to be read by others’ (Van
Dijck 2007: 54), photos are created for a potential audience. We communicate important
ideas about ourselves to others through photographs and we change (and constrain) our
behaviour when being photographed in an attempt to portray ourselves in a favourable
light. Increasingly, it seems, we attempt to control both aspects of performance, to be
simultaneously director and actor. ‘Selfie’ (a photographic self-portrait) is the Oxford
Dictionary’s word of 2013 due to a 17000 per cent increase in usage over the year
(Guardian 2013). As the extent to which we are photographed (whether by ourselves or
by others) increases, our awareness of our potential photographic image changes with it.
Cameras, whether used for personal, reportage or surveillance purposes (and, indeed,
these categories increasingly overlap), are becoming ubiquitous. As a result, we must
take into account – whenever we are in public, at least – that we may be photographed.
Perhaps we are right to be concerned by the photographs that are produced of us.
Whether they appear in pornography, on dating websites, in magazines, on social
networking sites, or in any other place, people are commodified within photographs.
Their images can be examined, manipulated and redistributed without their presence,
consent or awareness. Our ability to interact with photographs as a substitute for people
led McLuhan (2005) to call photography a ‘Brothel-without-walls’. As well as people,
photography also commodifies experience. Within tourism, for example, we are sold
flights and hotels through photographs of places we have never been. Once there, we take
our own pictures as souvenirs and, perhaps, on a subconscious level, we take into account
the sort of photographs that might be produced when choosing a destination (Slater
1995). Thus, commodification works in both directions – we take photographs of our
more ‘profitable’ relationships, activities and environments, and potential photographic
value influences our choices as, in part, we seek out behaviours and destinations that
generate good photographs (Sontag 1977). As Slater writes, ‘we construct ourselves for
the image and through images’ (1995: 134, original emphasis).
Within our collections, where are the photographs of people doing household chores,
working, commuting, being ill, watching TV or most of the things that make up the
majority of our time? Some of our biggest concerns – finances, health, etc. – are seldom
represented or even closely associated with any of our images. Personal photographs
generally emphasize action, happiness and popularity to the general exclusion of
unhappy, salacious or mundane activity (Slater 1995). Though exponentially expanding
digital storage capacity has redefined what is considered ‘photo-worthy’ (see Lindley
2012; Van House et al. 2005), and collections include photographs that are mundane,
playful, bizarre or accidental, we are still unlikely to see images of ourselves doing the
washing up. Cameras capture only a fraction of who we are and what we do; yet, the
content of the resulting photographs is privileged within our socially constructed
identities (Sarvas and Frohlich 2011) and, consequently, our memories.
Episodic memory involves the subjective re-experiencing of personal events and is not
fixed or flat like the photograph but involves movement, non-visual sensory information
and reconstruction (Tulving 1972). Although they are often thought of as synonymous
with memories (Batchen 2006), photographs act as cues that help us to mentally
reconstruct related episodes. Episodic memory, unlike photographs, fades over time
(Schacter 2007) – a notion many of us struggle to accept. The photographer uses the
camera to stave off the loss of memory, attempting to correct a perceived flaw – the
tendency of our biological brains to rapidly forget the details and imagery of our
experience. As such, we often trust photographs more than human memory (Haldrup and
Larsen 2003). However, a number of factors can derail the photograph’s value to us as a
tool for remembering our past.
To begin with, the stability of photographs can limit the flexibility with which we
reinterpret the past. While we are able to think of ourselves differently over time, our
photographs continue to remind those who view them of aspects of ourselves or our
experience that we may wish to be forgotten. Many of us have photographs that we avoid
looking at so that we do not have to face some aspect of our past. When our photographs
move into the public domain, our control over such information is compromised.
It is inevitable that, within our memories, some aspects of experience will be sharpened
over time while other aspects fade (Conway 2005). Taking photographs is an attempt to
take control of this, but rather than stopping the fading process it simply changes what is
preserved and what is forgotten. Koutstaal et al. (1999) found that looking at photographs
can reinforce memory for an event at the expense of other events for which photos are not
reviewed. Thus, those things we have photographs of can become privileged within
memory. Sometimes, our memory moves even closer to the photographic image as we
come to privilege not just what is in the photograph but the photograph itself (Bate 2010).
Our memory is susceptible to externalized representations (Sacchi et al. 2007) and
sometimes we recall a static, rectangular and purely visual image as a result of exposure
to photography. As a personal example, when I think of Christmas ten years ago, the first
image that appears in my mind is a staged photograph of the people who were there,
rather than any ‘direct’ memory of the event itself. It requires effort on my part to move
beyond the photograph into the movement, sounds and associations of episodic memory.
This phenomenon was alluded to by Roland Barthes (1981: 91) when he wrote that ‘Not
only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory… it actually blocks memory, quickly
becomes a counter-memory’. David Bate (2010) draws from Freud (1980) to conceive of
certain photographs as ‘screen memories’ that encapsulate and, thereby, impede our
access to important memories. Both Barthes’ and Bate’s ideas relate to the psychological
phenomenon of retroactive interference where a newer ‘memory’ blocks a similar, older
one (Baddeley 1999). Photographs may interfere with our reconstruction of visual
imagery, making it easier for us to picture a scene but harder for us to relive it, to feel as
if we were there. Fortunately, it does not appear to be a simple equation where more
photographs equals more interference. Since many of us now have large photo collections
yet are still able to remember reasonable amounts of past experience, this phenomenon is
perhaps restricted to a few, select photographs that become the personal equivalent of
iconic images that stand in for a host of related memories. It is likely that this is
dependent on the extent to which we review our photographs and rehearse the stories they
relate to (which, as we will see, is not all that much).
The possibility of remembering only the contents of our photographs seems preferable to
the possibility of forgetting an event entirely, and so we use photography to create
opportunities for nostalgia and future remembering. It turns out, however, that we are
poor strategists in this regard. For one thing, we exaggerate how much most photographs
and the experiences they document will matter to us later. We over-inflate the importance
of the present due to what Schkade and Kahneman (1998: 340) call the focusing illusion:
‘Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it’.
According to Kahneman (2011), we have an ‘experiencing self’ who lives in the present
moment and a ‘remembering self’ who keeps track of the story of our life to help us make
decisions. This story is a highly selective and simplified account that leaves out the vast
majority of our experience and perhaps the experiencing self takes photographs in an
attempt to influence it. Yet the remembering self must be selective because we simply
cannot use all of the information we perceive. Just as making all of the text in this article
bold would not help you to remember it, taking photographs of everything we encounter
would not help us to remain conscious of it: if everything is important then nothing is.
Despite our reluctance to let certain moments pass without recording them, or to delete
photographs even when we do not value them (Whittaker et al. 2012), the first thing that
normally happens to a photo after some brief, initial attention, is that it is forgotten. In
1995, Slater claimed that most families did not look at their (pre-digital) photographs
more than once per year and that most photographs remained in the envelopes they were
placed in by a developer. In the earlier days of digital photography, most photos stayed
on the camera or were downloaded to a hard drive and then forgotten (Whittaker et al.
2010). These trends suggest that it is the taking and having of photos, rather than looking
at them, organizing them or sharing them, that we find most engaging. Nevertheless,
while most photograph collections are seldom constructed or used in the way their
creators intend (Whittaker et al. 2010), the component photographs still function as
memory artefacts in a variety of unpredictable ways. We stumble across forgotten
photographs while doing other things, sparking new insights from old memories
(Frohlich et al. 2012). The nature of stumbling is changing radically as, in contrast to
lying unused in paper envelopes or digital folders, photographs are increasingly uploaded
to the cloud via an automatic or semi-automatic process, ending up in public spaces.
Digital disruption: Losing control
Pre-digital processes of photographic production, distribution and consumption were
relatively discrete and defined: photos were taken, then developed, then collected and
then shown to other people, put into albums or simply put away. Digital developments
are compressing these practices together. The ability to look at photos on the camera
means that consumption can happen immediately after production, disrupting established
processes of anticipation and rehearsal of the photographs that are taken and enabling
new processes of practice, experimentation and retaking. Distribution – even
internationally – can happen immediately after production or, in the case of automatic
uploading services such as Google Plus, simultaneously.
There are a number of consequences to this compression. The barriers that are broken
down have historically acted as filters. For example, the expense of film and development
reduced the number of photographs and helped us to avoid collections that were too large
for us to keep organized or to meaningfully engage with the majority of their contents.
The intervention of a professional developer probably lessened the likelihood of our
taking compromising images. The physical dimension of pre-digital photographs
restricted the spaces where they would appear. The removal of these barriers has led to
complications of control, privacy and context.
Before online photo sharing, collections were mostly controlled by the person who had
taken the photographs. Now, if a photograph is networked by being uploaded to a photo-
sharing website or a blog, or sent via e-mail, it is freed, to a large extent, from its original
owner’s control. Out of sight, it proliferates as copies are downloaded or amalgamated by
friends, strangers and non-human entities such as search engines. The photographer
cannot guarantee who can see it or where it will turn up.
Figure 1: Cats on Flickr.
It comes to be viewed not alongside its former neighbours (photographs taken on the
same camera at a similar time and place) but in thematic categories orchestrated through
its metadata (e.g. all photos tagged as ‘cat’). From here, it can be found and used by
anyone for almost any purpose (Jackson 2009). Questions of audience (who can see / has
seen this photo?), place (where is the photo?), ownership (whose is this version of this
photo?) and purpose (what is the photo used for?) are all much more difficult to answer
now than they were just 10 years ago.
As the context in which they are viewed changes, photos come to express things that their
authors did not intend (Rose 2006). Consider the picture of the first Zeiss planetarium on
[p. x] that was taken in 1923. This photograph presumably came into being through a
chemical process, was printed on paper and has been scanned into digital form. Here it is
in print again – or perhaps you are reading an on-screen PDF or some mashed-up,
decontextualized form of this text that I have not anticipated. In any case, the
photographer is probably no longer alive and will almost certainly never know that his
photograph appeared in a journal about pervasive, digital media he could probably not
imagine. In this issue of Ubiquity, it is used to contrast a historical dome with related,
contemporary architecture. When it was taken, it was presumably for the purpose of
documenting a modern event. This example shows the capacity for the photograph to say
things that are very different from the intentions of the photographer at the time it was
Context is, perhaps, more significant for photographs of people. The photograph
displayed here as Figure 2 has been unbound from the context in which it was created,
where the behaviour portrayed may have seemed more reasonable (or, indeed, less
reasonable). It is difficult to resist judging those people we see in images, despite not
knowing their side of the story. We take the photograph as evidence even if we do not
know what it is evidence of. An important step towards digital literacy involves learning
to forgive these perceived transgressions as quotations taken out of context. At the same
time, some level of restraint is advisable in producing and distributing images since we
cannot be there to explain a potentially compromising photograph in each of its
Figure 2: People out of context.
Images of ourselves bear a hint of the doppelgänger, where one can simultaneously be
looking at and be in the photograph. Two selves diverge as the camera’s shutter closes:
one living, ageing and evolving, the other photographic, fixed in age and appearance, yet
interpreted differently with each new context in which it is perceived. Each photographic
self produced in this way is of a different time, yet they all exist at the same time – now.
By positing images in online environments, Bayne (2008: 9) writes that ‘we scatter our
“bodies” across the web where they gain a kind of independence as nodes for
commentary, connection and appropriation by others’. As avatars, for example,
photographs are treated as a proxy for our embodied selves. Where the person in a
photograph is well known, the representation can be mistaken for the thing it represents:
‘People, quite literally, see through them; they do not see a photograph of a “loved one”,
only the person’ (Haldrup and Larsen 2003: 41).
As time passes, the photographic image does not evolve to reflect our current appearance,
although our interpretation of it does evolve to reflect our current attitude and context. On
Facebook, for example, an old profile picture can create an impression of currency by
appearing beside current posts. In Facebook’s case, changing the profile image updates
the old picture that stood beside every post across the user’s timeline, again disrupting the
relationship between current identity and past perspectives through the suggestion that
the present self currently endorses each old post.
Photographs are strange and complex things. They take the place of our memories,
wearing away at our own reconstructions of imagery and association and privileging their
content and metadata over what we may otherwise have found important. They do not
record history, but determine it.
The compression, through evolving digital affordances, of production, distribution and
consumption increases the complexity of the networks in which we position ourselves –
and are positioned – through photographs. Through online distribution, photographs
proliferate and escape the bonds of their original context, disrupting control, privacy and
meaning. This disruption affects the way that we are represented by our images, which,
wherever they turn up, express ideas without our knowledge or consent and without
reference to our current perspective.
We are learning the consequences of these developments as we go. Until we find a
common balance of control, restraint and forgiveness, we are likely to face challenges of
constrained identities, threats to our self-image and an over-privileging within memory of
the contents of our photographs. Despite all of this, we continue to take increasing
numbers of photos. It seems inevitable that we perform photography and photography
Thank you to Hamish Macleod, Ethel Quayle for their advice and guidance.
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Tim Fawns is a programme coordinator of the M.Sc. in Clinical Education at the
University of Edinburgh and a Ph.D. candidate researching the relationship between
evolving digital photography practices and autobiographical memory. He has a
background in graphic design and online learning.
Centre for Medical Education, University of Edinburgh, 49 Little France Crescent,
Edinburgh, EH16 4SB, UK.