I read with interest Eva Wiseman’s article in The Observer on Sunday 22 December 2013 titled “Our addiction to photographing our lives”. There has been a long fascination with photography and its function in relation to memory. In my academic writing I have investigated both the process of remembering and that of forgetting.
This article follows on the general theme of recent discussions around vernacular photography. Many of these view our ‘addiction to photographing our lives’ in a negative way. In this article Wiseman quotes the study of Dr Linda Henkel titled ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” published in the journal of Psychological Science.
The study abstract informs us:
“Two studies examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them. Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them.”
It is from this passage that Wisemen takes her article. Her argument is that the photograph stops us from remembering. What Henkel calls the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Reading this I am referred back to “Camera Lucida” where Barthes describes how the photograph
“… actually blocks the memory, quickly become a counter-memory. One day, some friends were talking about their childhood memories: they had any number: but I, who had just been looking at my old photographs, had none left.”
The photograph has become cast as the evil memory blocker. But before you throw your camera phone apps to the wall there is more to this. Henkel’s study investigated further and this is not mentioned in Wiseman’s article. The abstract continues:
“However, when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired, and, in fact, memory for features that were not zoomed in on was just as strong as memory for features that were zoomed in on. This finding highlights key differences between people’s memory and the camera’s “memory” and suggests that the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect.”
This second part of the abstract describes ‘zooming in’. For us photographers there is hope for our memories, provided we work in the abstract. As a photography tutor, I have always urged students to get closer to the subject. I frequently remind students of Robert Capa’s words:
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
[Rather less frequently do I alert students to the fact that he lived and died by this maxim!]
So it seems that in order to preserve (and possibly enhance) the memory recall capability from your photographs you should explore the subject. Get in close, abstract, distort, look up, look in, look across, look down and whatever you do, leave plenty for the imagination to play with. What’s stopping you?