Photographic Memories

August 11, 2022 Memory Photography Smartphones Brian Resnick Haley Nahman

A morning in Spain.A morning in Spain.

Over at Vox, Brian Resnick sums up the latest research on What Smartphone Photography is doing to our memories”. It largely explores the effect that we’re able now able to take photos way more casually than ever before—a bit of an extension of the ol’ film-to-digital debate.

The most interesting bit? Photography can help us offload” specific memories, in effect outsourcing a memory to a photograph by which it can be recalled. Instead of remembering something just by the visual (or sensory) memory of the brain, the photograph takes over—as a crutch on which the memory can lean lateron.

I’ve never liked that explainer that using tools of any kind necessarily makes us dumber, but rather that it enables us to think about other things. To free up mental capacity, if you will—and this seems to confirm that notion. It also raises a philosophical question any photographer needs to ask themselves: What do we actually want to remember by our brains alone? And what can we cognitively offload”?

It becomes more interesting than that: Sharing a photograph with an audience actually changes the way we perceive it:

Barasch and her colleagues have found evidence that taking pictures to share on social media changes our perspective within our memories. That is: When we’re taking photos to share on social media, we’re more likely to remember the moment from a third-person perspective.”

The term mediated” is often shorthand for publishing media, e.g. how we perceive world events after reading about them in the news. But mediated means that the way we perceive the world passes through some kind of filter, and that we tend to be both unaware of the filter’s existence and of those who shape it. What the article is saying is that our memories are mediated as well: Not just by what we consume but by how we choose to participate in the attention economy as both a spectator and a contributor.

Haley Nahman, In Fear of Forgetting:

Studies have shown that when you remember something, you’re likely remembering the last time you recalled it. Meaning that every time we look back, our present ever so slightly alters the past. Photos charge into this process as if to offer irrefutable evidence of what was, but they’re just as fallible. No matter how beautiful, evocative, or sentimental to look at, they exist parallel to reality in important ways.

Photos can never fulfill the burden we place on them to stop time, to save moments we love from slipping away.

Thinking about it, I find that much of the motivation that drives me to take photos comes exactly from wanting to capture the mood of a given situation, not necessarily to offload to help me recall a memory—however imperfectly—at a later point in time.

See also: Why Stop Time?, The Chronocentrism in Us All

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