OK. Photography is memory. Photography is a construct, just like our memory. Photography is a great tool to serve our purpose of constructing our memory. We’re our own propagandists who, just like all propagandists, know that what we’re saying is not necessarily true. But what matters is that we make ourselves believe it is true. Or rather we treat our memories just like we treat announcements in advertizing that always come with the asterisk and all the fine print. We know that “certain restrictions apply.” But photography allows us to try to make those restrictions go away, or at least to reduce the amount of exceptions. (more)
This is why the taker of our photographs matters so much. The photographs are taken, and we then make them into something that conforms to what we want to believe in. If we’re the photographer, we’re in the ideal position. We can do whatever we want, we have as much control as we would like to have. To include ourselves in our photographic memories requires a bit of a production (a long arm or a self-timer), but it’s doable.
Once we relinquish control, once we’re not the photographer any longer, things become a bit more complex. The creation of memory always requires a fair amount of editing - the term curating also seems appropriate here. But it’s much harder to do that work, psychologically, working with other people’s materials.
That photograph of you as a child, taken by, let’s say, your father - that is his propaganda, and now you’re trying to make it your own. This is bound to cause at least some friction, since his story is not yours. His view of us is not yours. Chances are it’s a very different view. So to take photographs taken by someone else and to make them part of our history, of our memory, is a tricky endeavour. You can read whatever you want into the photographs, but you know that what you read into them in all likelihood is not what originally went into them. The lies your father might have told himself about his family probably are not the same lies you’re telling yourself.
In this sense, family photography stands out from all other photography: There was something at stake, and we know it. There still might be something at stake for us (just to make this clear, in this context I am excluding the fine-art photography category of “family photography,” or rather most of it - only in the very best examples does the fact survive that in family photography something is at stake). Even if we don’t know the person(s) in a family photograph, if we’re dealing with found photographs, we just feel the desire that went into the making. That is, I believe, what makes such photographs, when found, so special.
The following line from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz alludes to the idea of something being at stake, of family photographs having a special power that might even revert the relationship between them and us (my own translation from the German language paperback edition 2003, p. 266):
“One had the impression, she said, something stirred in them, as if one heard minute sighs of despair, g’enissements de d’esespoir, she said, said Austerlitz, as if the images themselves had a memory and remembered us, remembered what we, the survivors, and those not amongst us any longer had been previously.”
Given we’re so aware of the power of family photographs, is it then surprising how much we revere our own, how much energy we put into them?
(to be continued)
photo: JM Colberg, Untitled, 2007