Have Cameras Left Us with "Photographic Memories"?
Jesse Richards - February 5, 1999

I recently walked past a dorm room whose door was covered in photographs. I don’t know why this struck me, but I started thinking about photography. My room is filled with photos, too — some in frames, dozens taped to my desk and its corkboard backing. These each represent a memory, a mixture of specific events and people. But what started me thinking was just how strange it is that in our culture, photographs have become synonymous with memories.

Why do I have so many photos hanging up? I selected them mainly because of who was in them — my friends and relatives. Do I feel that I’ll forget them if I’m not looking at them? That’s pretty insulting. Maybe they’re hanging so other people can see them — on some subconscious level I want them to say, “Oh, look, here’s proof of Jesse having fun with cool people.” This is like carrying a picture of your children in your wallet — to show off. This answer makes me a little guilty as well. Maybe the photos are hanging up because they’re aesthetically pleasing. Are they there because I took a “good” photo and am proud of it? These questions boil down to my desire not just to remember, but to be proud of my memories. Photographic Memories

I guess the real intriguing question is “What did people do before photography?” Or, since photography has been around since the 1830s, what did people do before photography became advanced, super-cheap, and in color — say, in the last few decades? How did people remember? What was the basis of their memories? Some people had paintings of themselves and their relatives, but that was only the wealthy. Ancient people had storytellers, and many cultures still do, but our culture has completely changed the nature of the storyteller. We’ve reserved stories mainly for fiction. And most of the non-fiction stories we do have are incorporated into movies, books, or television, which only cover huge events. Not everyone can count on a movie-of-the-week being made of their life, or on writing an autobiography. Personal memories are told for a few days, to a few friends, and then encased in photographs.

You could say it was just different back then, but not because of photography — people had simply less things to remember. If you’re living in the 18th century and only know two dozen people, you don’t need to struggle to remember them. If you’ve never traveled outside of your state or town, you wouldn’t need a picture of every statue or landmark you’d seen. But this isn’t proven — who’s to say that an ancient society processed less information than ours?

Even so, it would seem that photography is a mirror of our culture’s current, overloaded, busy mindset that everyone’s been in for the past few decades. Is photography our technological solution to organizing our confusing memories?

This is an intriguing question indeed. People put a lot of faith in photographs. We remember an event more distinctly if we have a photo to jog our memory. And people, too — everyone admits that they would forget many of the people they graduated with, so we created yearbooks. All you need is a small head shot to kick in the rest of your memories surrounding a person — sharing a class with them, passing them in the hall, or knowing they dated one of your friends.

But the scariest thought isn’t how well we remember things in photos — it’s how easily we forget things that aren’t in photos. Our culture is dependent on photos to act as our memories, faithfully recording each event. We then prioritize things in our mind according to how many photos we have, or how well they turned out.

If I have a great time at a party, take pictures, and then have a similarly great time at a party the following week without pictures, which event will I remember in ten years? Only the first one. Or, more likely, both parties will merge together in my mind, and I’ll think I only went to one. I only have those photos, so that must be the way it happened, right? We take the photos because we expect it to be an important experience, but is it the photos themselves that end up making it important? Our prioritizing becomes closely tied to photos — both at the event and years later.

Memories are flexible. This is why multiple witnesses are needed in a courtroom. This is why that “telephone game,” where a story passed along kids in a circle quickly degrades, works the way it does. But maybe this flaw in our memories is only a recent phenomenon. How scary would that be? I feel a great relief whenever I’m trying to remember something and finally write it down. I’m relieved I don’t have to remember it anymore. Maybe, subconsciously, this is what our minds have become accustomed to, partly due to our overuse of photography. Maybe our minds have become lazy, ignoring information they realize has already been backed up elsewhere.

Now don’t get me wrong. As an artist, I think photography is an excellent artistic medium, producing exciting effects and touching hearts for two centuries. But we’re dealing with casual photography here — whose main purpose is as a memory aid. Frankly, as a mnemonic device, photography’s use is much more questionable than its artistic use, and it raises many questions.

Maybe ancient societies remembered the same amount of information as we do. Even if they knew less people, maybe they knew those people better. It’s analogous to having ten really good friends instead of a hundred acquaintances. Those people could have known things about their neighbors that couldn’t be captured in photographs — subtle personality traits and nuances of character to which modern people are oblivious. Today, we seem to reserve the amount of effort it takes to know someone really well for our significant others and a few of our closest friends or relatives. It’s possible photography is a reason behind this. Photography’s discovery and the rapid increase in the world’s population are amazing coincidences. Today we need to know so many more people that we’re only able to know them superficially. Photography helps us remember — all that we need to know about our acquaintances can be caught in a photograph.

But is this a good or a bad thing? Obviously the population explosion and the need to know so many people in our daily lives, especially in business, are out of our individual control and ingrained in our culture. But has photography contributed to our individual loss of the ability to know someone on a deep level? Or has it at led us to assume that we don’t need to know people that way anymore? This can easily be argued — photographs become a stand-in for a person in our minds, and we subconsciously think we don’t need to remember anything other than what’s in the photo.

I think we’ve gotten into the habit of trusting photos more than our own memories. Hence the term, “photographic memory” — a memory so good it’s like a photograph. I think this trust is the subconscious reason why people get scared of computer manipulation of photographs. People are conscious of this manipulation now that new photography techniques and computer programs make it easy, but they don’t realize that photography has always been manipulated. Photographers have quite a lot of freedom in the developing room — in the resolution of their pictures, dodging and burning, cropping images. A skilled photographer can manipulate and combine photos without touching a computer. But now computers make it a lot easier — you still need to know what you’re doing, but computers are used frequently to eliminate red-eye, clear blurry photos, add light, and produce other simple effects. People like these conveniences; it’s the bolder manipulation that’s threatening.

My first experience with this was a few years ago. At an annual family gathering, we took a group photo. In it were my close relatives, about 15 or so, except for my mother. For years she’d never been in the picture, since she always took it. This time she took one, then switched places with my grandfather so he could take one which included her. Then the fun part came. When the pictures were developed, I scanned the two into the computer, and digitally cut my mom out of the one photo and seamlessly placed her into the other.

After two decades, there is finally a picture of our entire family. We printed the picture and gave it to all our relatives. Back then we didn’t think of it, but now you can also buy photographic paper to print on, to get the appearance of a real photograph. If your printer is good enough, there is no difference.

Throwing my nagging morality to the wind, I thoroughly enjoyed this foray into Orwellian machinations. Changing events after the fact is fun. Really, I thought, it’s not lying — everyone was there. It’s just being helpful. Everybody’s happy now. But where do you draw the line?

Now I deal with photo manipulation all the time. I design Web pages, graphics, and art projects and touch up photos for this newspaper. I try not to lie in photographs. Generally, we at The Acorn go by this rule: if it changes the meaning of the picture, what it is saying, don’t do it. If it helps the clarity, then sure, go ahead. I am not sure what laws apply when dealing with photographs and publishing them. I am not sure that they are too specific. If that scares you, it should.

Surely newspapers and reputable TV news programs set guidelines. But even in choosing what to show you — which pictures, how they are cropped, what captions or sound bytes accompany them — newspapers and television are manipulating your first impressions of an event or person.

It goes back to how deeply we know things today. News bytes are meant to be superficial. No one has time to study all the information on every article in the paper, so the paper tries to present the most attention-grabbing. Sometimes this screws up the priority of the information. It is up to the individual to form an unbiased opinion by uncovering as many facts and varying sources as possible. Maybe in the future, photo manipulation will force our culture to reexamine its memory-lending habits. Maybe photography will play a different role then. Maybe only then will we remember how to form memories on our own.