Photographic Memory

Throughout the course of human civilization memory has been transient, plastic. The girl who broke your heart can, in time, become simply the girl you lived with ten years ago. Given more time she becomes either the one who got away or the one you can’t believe you almost married. But now, in the reign of the photographic image, the past is no longer malleable. It can no longer shift meaning in order to facilitate the narrative of your present circumstances.

We are now, all of us, cinematographers for the movie of our own lives. Not the star. Not the director. Not even the writer!”

There was more to that tirade – part of a speech given by a character who hated photography, in a book I read recently. It’s far too weighty a subject for me to cover in one post, and certainly on a day like today when I am so easily distracted. But while it would have been easy for me to dismiss the whole notion, there was part of me that could see where the character was coming from, and even agree with parts of his reasoning.

For me, photographs have always been more of a way of retaining memories; of capturing and chronicling moments in time to preserve for the future. Not even, like, future generations, per se. But in large part because I am afraid of forgetting my life, and in seeking to retain as much of it as possible, I’ve always taken as many pictures as I can. It was different back when you couldn’t see your shot until you’d had the film developed, and the little counter on your camera told you how many photos you had left to take before you needed a new roll. I was more economical then.

Now, my freaking phone has a camera in it, so I take pictures of pretty much everything! And then store them in a digital space, invisible to the naked eye. That’s a transition I’ve made more slowly than most, and I still have a crap-ton of photos printed out and kept in albums all over my apartment.

However, delivery and storage methods aside, the pictures I take are usually done with the same intent – to preserve my life. Also, to show off my cool, creative eye. But mostly for the sake of retaining memories in a visual way.

I remember hearing or reading somewhere that taking a picture actually makes a moment less retain-able in the memory banks than observing it with your own eyes. As in, not through a lens, and not on a screen, but actually watching it and even interacting with it. That statement made me worry that I may have been doing things wrong, so just in case, I now try to do both – to watch and also to chronicle the important moments I want to keep.

This book’s character goes even further with it, however, and suggests that we’re not even a part of our own lives anymore; that we’re merely filming our lives instead of living them and forging them and creating them. That goes well beyond being able to remember things down the road, and instead states that we’re actually outsiders in our lives. Just watching life happen between the frames, so swept up in what’s passing that we’ve forgotten to exist in the now; to take hold of and manifest our own now’s.

Not the star. Not the director. Not even the writer. Memory is all but carved in stone via a photograph, and we’re unable to grow and change and evolve past things that happened, because we’ve made them permanent fixtures. We’ve made the past – and all of the emotion caught up in it – a permanent, unchangeable part of the present. The stories of our lives are being told through the eyes of everyone else.

Maybe all we’re really doing is watching it pass by.