Taking pictures isn’t about making memories. Taking pictures is about capturing remembrances and making mementos.
Shakespeare summed up the experience of remembrances:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
Shakespeare understood that remembrances create a swirl of emotions, which we analyze and morph depending upon the reasons why we remember them.
First, the language.
The words we associate with the process of remembrances clue us in to the complexity of the experience they give us. To “re” “member” is to be animated. The “members” are our limbs. To “remember” is to feel again. (Likewise, the concepts of “memorial” and “commemorate” are about experiencing emotion.)
When we talk of “memory,” we speak of “recalling,” “recollecting,” “reviewing,” “reminding.” “Memories” are recordings. They are accurate. They are precise. They are the types of things we can hold in working consciousness: memorized phone numbers, facts, dates, patterns, all of which we can recall with accuracy within a limited time. Working memory only exists while you’re in the present moment and concentrating on a particular matter, and remains accessible only for a brief period of time thereafter. (As an example, think of how quickly you forget the discrete digits in a phone number if you don’t write it down soon after hearing it.) Once the event is in what psychologists call “long term memory,” the information is transformed into an impression. (It isn’t “memory” when it’s stored in the recesses of the mind, but unfortunately psychological terms don’t evolve much to reflect current scientific understanding.) A phone number you can recall days after learning it isn’t in the same form it was in working memory. Instead, your recall is a non-specific impression—you can rattle off the numbers without having to translate them consciously into digits. Likewise, the same thing happens with reading. When you’re working on learning a new word, your attention is on the actual letters and their sounds. When that word is in “long term memory,” reading happens by seeing the shape of the entire word in context. When you see the word, you “know” what it means and have no need to break it down in your conscious mind as letters and sounds to understand the thing which it represents.
Humans don’t have memories for long. Instead, what we retain are remembrances. A remembrance is the impression which was formed by all of our senses at the time the event occurred, and not merely the bit of information on which we were focused at the time we were consciously thinking about it. A remembrance is like a dream—impressionistic and surrealistic. And that’s the reason that we sometimes think the dream we just had really happened: because the experience of the dream was the same as experiencing a remembrance. The dream, like the remembrance, was rich with meaning and feeling, and a bit short on the details, but nevertheless communicated the gist of the message.
Few of our daily activities require a high level of concentration or taxing use of our working memory. Like when we read, we don’t engage with the world by consciously analyzing the meaning of each thing or word we encounter. Instead, we respond by using the impressions stored in the mind. We gravitate toward what interests us not by concentrating on it, but by feeling it. We recognize significant and important things, and know how we feel about those things, not because of a conscious memory, but because of a remembrance.
As Shakespeare said, remembrances are what life is about. Our impressions, desires, emotions, and the catalysts of all our conscious thought, start with remembrances. Remembrances get us in touch with our feelings. Remembrances are the whole of the experience, rather than just a piece. To make better photographs, we need to understand how and why remembrances are made.
Next, the process.
Our existence each day can be thought of as a timeline of occurences. Discrete things happen in a linear manner. (Wake up, brush teeth, have a shower, etc.) Along that course of events, something may happen which has the chance of being memorable. Commonly, such an event is one which is multidimensional: it has emotion, joy, excitement, or it is somehow unusual, significant, or traumatic.
When we experience a memorable event, the body and mind respond. Attention becomes hyperfocused, our awareness of ourselves in space and time is enhanced, and our emotions become involved. (As an extreme example, think about “flashbulb memories.” Depending on how old you are: when Kennedy was shot; the Shuttle disaster; the attacks of 9/11.) Because our minds, bodies, and emotions are all involved, the amount of neuron activity surrounding the experience of the event is very high, meaning that multiple parts of the brain will store information related to that event.
When all that heightened neuron activity is present, our minds engage in what psychologists call the process of “encoding.” Specifically, the subject of our focus, perception, and attention becomes paired with our emotional and physical responses and the event is converted into a single remembrance which is composed of all those parts.
Great photographs are remembrances—not memories, and the product is a Memento.
Remembrances are what make up life. Remembrances are how we define our personal history, how we relate to the world, and how we know who we are. If we want to make great images, we have to make remembrances instead of memories. That path starts with getting in touch with what makes a good remembrance, and confronting the obstacles of photography as a medium.
But first we have to orient ourselves to the task at hand. The primary consideration is one of appreciating the seriousness of that task. Making remembrances is a responsibility. A photograph which contains the elements of a remembrance *is* a remembrance: the image will provide the effect of an encoded experience to the viewer. That’s no small thing, especially since a photograph of an event may conflict with the perceptions of a person who was there. Indeed, this is one of the ways in which photography can be very disruptive. When we are making remembrances through our photographs, we have to keep in mind our fundamental obligations of respecting our subject, our intended audience, and our unknown viewers. Keeping those obligations in mind, however, also helps us to orient to making good remembrances.