A hierarchy of memory

I generally write (blog) as way to organize the jumble of activity in my head. I am writing this particular entry after six weeks in India (and what seems like an equally long flight to get home.) The flight was not really six weeks of course, but the intensity of how experienced the two flights left me thinking about how we initially encounter and later remember experiences. Photographs often facilitate this process. Some discussions with family in India prompted me to think further about the intertwined relationship between images, family stories and memory.

During the time my daughter and niece volunteered at a school in Bangalore, India (see: http://www.parikrmafoundation.org/) they met a lot of new people. They also reconnected with members of their extended family who they had met previously. Inevitably, the conversation turned to a few repeating threads. These include, what the girls remember from previous trips to India, how they are related to each other and were they taking pictures while in India? (The last question always prompted the same answer, a finger pointed at me followed by something like “That’s what he is for.” When they were working at the school, they were similarly pressed by the school kids and (some teachers) to talk about their own childhoods.

The girls would come home from school every weekday afternoon and need to decompress after an intense day working with what quickly became known as “their kids.” Sometimes they would log on to Facebook, go on the Internet, read or just chill-out. They would also often talk about their day in school and about what they did with “their kids.” Though they are 16 and 17 years old, they also often talked about their own childhoods like someone much older.

My daughter would occasionally ask me about some aspect of her childhood and schooling. Or, some family member would ask for more details about a given experience and as the stories were told, by me, my daughter (or occasionally my niece,) I noted a distinctive hierarchy of memory.

My daughter would easily recount the outlines of a given story she had heard or experienced. In some stories, she was old enough to probably remember what had happened but others were from when she was much younger. The photographs she has seen in the years since those early events are clearly what she remembers because she was too young to remember the actual event.

My own childhood memories are similarly distorted by the presence or absence of photographs. Whenever my family is together recounting childhood stories, the same hierarchy of memory takes over. In most cases, whatever event we have an image of is much more prominent in our family “lore.”

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, in the case of incidents that were somehow so outlandish as to stand on their own without any visual record. These same “un-photographed” stories have taken on a more open ended life all their own. They are more prone to expand, get twisted and turned, generally becoming ever more embellished over the years.

As this pondering went on, I started to think about how photographs have changed the way we actually live our experiences and turn those same experiences into stories to share later with others. I especially wonder how this plays out in other, non-visual media. Simply put, if we have a photo of an event, does that serve as a limit or merely a starting point for someone who then turns that experience into a family story, a memoir or a piece of fiction?

All of this was complicated by the fact that one of the many projects I worked on while living in India this summer involved organizing a huge set of family photos. This meant that the imagery my daughter was drawing on as she told a story from our family lore was an image that I had likely seen that same day or week.

By the end of the time in India I came to see how in my family, as I suspect in most, the hierarchy of memory goes something like this:

Most photos are photos and nothing more. If we are lucky the images remind us of the event and maybe of the people who are shown.

Many memories are memories and nothing more. They are in our heads and each time we bring them out they get reshaped and worn down.

Some photos are connected to stories/memories and together they make the event in question feel larger and more intense.

Most stories that lack photos slowly sink in our collective memory.

The most remembered stories have photos to match, pushing the memory to the top of our collective, familial memory.

While I am not suggesting we photograph everything, all the time, I do wonder what is getting lost? Others, much smarter than I, have written and blogged extensively about how photographing some things change our experience of that thing. Experiencing an event, without the distancing filter of technology, they argue, makes that experience more intense, more pure. No doubt that is true.

On the other hand, if all we ever really have is our experiences and our memories, shouldn’t we be concerned about holding onto those as best we can? All of this took me back to the old philosophy question of “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make noise? The photographer’s version might be “If a moment is lived but not photographed, what gets lost because of the lack of that fixed visual memory?”

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