Monday, 9 December 2013

Photographic Memory by Sarah Bower

Please, I beg of you, do not take my photo. I find it excruciating. Either I really do look like that, or the camera, unlike the mirror in Snow White, is not merely indifferent but lies through its teeth, with malice aforethought.

I have recently returned from the Asia Pacific Writers Conference in Bangkok. It was my first trip any further east than Greece and among the many cultural differences I noticed between Asia and Europe (the eating of deep fried grasshoppers from paper bags, like batter scraps or boiled sweets; the fake Mulberry handbags mounded in shopping malls like a breeding orgy of exotic-coloured toads; the gilded Buddhas dancing along motorway verges in place of emergency phone kiosks; the aircon that seems to freeze the natural humidity into blocks in your chest) was the universal obsession with snapping photos. During a workshop I gave at the Bangkok Arts Centre, any number of people unknown to me simply walked into the room, held aloft their iPhones, clicked, flashed, bowed deeply and left again. I have no idea what happened to these photos. I’m inclined to be magnanimous because of the bowing. Also because I have been spared looking at most of them. Perhaps they languish in the photographers’ phones, perhaps they have cropped up on some social media somewhere to which I do not subscribe, or been published in a Bangkok paper. Perhaps they were deleted once the photographer realised he had snapped the wrong workshop, or at least, the wrong woman in the right workshop.

Of course, we in the West are not immune to this obsession. More and more, as we become ever deeper embroiled in Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and their like, we seem to cultivate an almost superstitious belief that an experience hasn’t happened unless we have pinned it down in pixels then posted it for our followers to admire or fall over laughing at. We complain about the ever-increasing inroads into our privacy yet cheerfully collude in these by disseminating drunken selfies all over the Web. While acknowledging the double standard, the loss of privacy is not what troubles me about photography. I, like most other people living in mature economies, knowingly traded my privacy years ago for the convenience of online banking, internet shopping and blethering on Facebook when I should be working.

What troubles me about photography, particularly still photography but also video, is the way in which it is coming to define memory. I was myself a keen photographer – and a reasonably good one – until, at some point between the births of my first and second children, I just stopped. Anyone who has more than one child will appreciate the practical reasons for this. Most of the time I was simply too knackered and distracted, running around after a toddler with a screaming baby under my arm, to think about picking up the camera – even if I had been able to remember where I’d put it. But as time passed, and the children grew (relatively) more manageable, and I still didn’t bother to look for the camera, I began to realise that something else was going on. It had to do with the complexity of memory, and the reductive nature of photography, the way it transforms all those layers and nuances and contradictions into a series of two dimensional images, brutally sheared off at the edges by the limitations of the lens.

Taking photographs was also taking away the truth of memory. What did the smiling mother with her two tidy little boys have to do with the reality of sleepless nights, nappies, pureed parsnip spattering the kitchen walls, an ankle turned on a stray block of Duplo? If I were to capture my memories in any way close to the actuality of the events that spawned them, I had to do so, it seemed to me, in words. There is a subtlety to language, a capacity to represent the past in three dimensions and to layer it (because the creation of every new memory involves the action of earlier memories on the mind experiencing and storing it. When, for example, I described the fake designer bags in the Bangkok shopping malls as looking like orgiastic toads it’s because I was accessing an older memory of a TV nature programme to find a way of expressing the more recent observation.). Language enables me to make my memories uniquely my own in a way which photographs do not.

Of course we all look at photos in different ways. You may look at an image of me grinning over dinner in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and think, ‘lucky woman’. I think something unflattering about my teeth, my hair, my dress… But we express our differences of perception in words. We have our greatest fun with photos when talking about them or exchanging comments on social networks. When we visit photography exhibitions, we look for the accompanying legend on the wall or in the catalogue to help us make sense of each image. We seem to need words to show us how to look and to articulate what we see.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m indulging in one of those competitive travel conversations that happen at certain kinds of dinner parties, earlier this year I found myself working in New York. Having never visited the city before, I dutifully took myself around the sights, including a visit to MoMA, where I had the worthy intention of doing homage to Willem de Kooning, an artist I love. I lasted about fifteen minutes among the Abstract Expressionists and even less in the other galleries. Apart from one elderly gentlemen seated before the Monet water lilies, every other visitor was scurrying from one painting to the next, pausing only long enough to snap it with their phone, or be snapped standing in front of it, more as if they were clocking celebrities on a red carpet than looking at art. The atmosphere was avid, restless, acquisitive. These people were collectors in the way Victorian naturalists were collectors, trapping, chloroforming, pinning to display boards (or Pinterest). What sticks in my mind – the memory that formed, settled and allowed itself to be coaxed into these words – is a Barnett Newman, largely an expanse of red paint on a rectangular canvas. In an amateur snap, that is what you would get – a red rectangle. But as you look at the painting with an eye unmediated by the digital, you begin to see the texture of the paint, thick, fibrous, like the pelt of some impossible animal. Then the colour starts to vibrate, to shake itself apart into yellows, oranges, into blood red and scarlet and black. That which the camera would kill comes to life in your mind’s eye.

I did bring a photographic trophy back from MoMA, a postcard of a de Kooning portrait. I gave it to a friend, because it was a painting he and I had talked about. The meaning of the image resided in the words exchanged about it, in the sharing of impressions and memories associated with it. Words give. The camera, on which we now rely so heavily not just for memory but for experience itself, is ‘…always taking…A camera hides a face, does away with the need for conversation…’ (Michelle De Kretser, Questions of Travel) Please, I beg you, put the camera down. Remember me as I am.


Sarah Bower has almost no idea how to operate the camera on her phone. She was so busy trying to sort it out she missed the moment her elder son’s medical degree was conferred on him and had to rely on him to tell her about it afterwards.

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