photo collage C. Ascher
It’s a funny thing about memory. There are different kinds. There is the pop-up memory that surprises us as we’re living in the now. There is the lingering memory, perhaps of something pleasant or someone for whom we cared, or the inescapable memory of a trauma or conflict. There are those just-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue teasers, or those deeply buried rotters that slowly poison our lives, those we sense are there but that we cannot, or will not access. There are those we’ve integrated so thoroughly into our skill or knowledge that they support – or sabotage -everything we do. Or there are memories that hook into us like fishing lures, their pull powered by the suction of our black holes, which we are constantly trying to escape.
Even funnier are those memories contained in photographs. There you are standing in a place or surrounded by people you don’t know. The photograph remembers them, it remembers you there, smiling, or mugging, or holding someone’s hand, but you look at it frowning, uncertain, surprised, with no memory of it at all. Perhaps you don’t even recognize yourself, perhaps other people have told you that baby is you there as they reminisce about how you were this or when you did that as you sit there skeptically, mistrustful, thinking they might be pulling your leg.
Well, that last is my experience of memory and of old photographs.
A friend recently told me he’d been looking at photographs of himself throughout his life. He remembers the places and the people clearly. The thing is, a man of sixty-seven, he has an amazing memory that stretches vividly back to when he was at least two. He remembers the houses and streets where he lived in another country, he remembers the names of people gone from his life for almost sixty years, he remembers objects he had and things he did and all manner of experiences as if he lives them anew with each remembering.
What amazes me is that he doesn’t need photographs to remember these things. All one has to do is encourage him with questions, one leading to another, and his past opens up to a listener like a movie being replayed. I sometimes envy him. There are too many things in my past that I only know about because of what other people remember. They are stories that make the photographs they show me seem vaguely familiar but that do little to trigger real memories of my own.
In another way, I consider myself the luckier one. When he talks about his past I hear in his voice such melancholy, such longing, such pain as he remembers I sometimes wish the photographs didn’t exist to confirm his experiences. It’s almost as if they help to transport him back physically: there he is standing on a dock about to board a ship, an excited five-year old; now he’s standing and laughing beside a best friend; there he is throwing balls for his favourite dog to catch; or he’s staring proudly before the façade of the first house he bought.
That is the problem: when he relives the past he does so as the person he was then, as the child or the teen again; when he revisits it through photographs all he sees is himself, even when he’s not pictured.
For a while it worried me that he was becoming more and more consumed by these memories, that his random perusal of the photographs was causing a kind of emotional malfunction because it made him jump from event to portrait to place without regard for when he experienced them in his life. He’d forget that the child he saw smiling and holding a teddy bear was happily ignorant of what would happen a year later, or that the girl with whom he held hands in the picture would no longer love him shortly after the shutter released. He relived the ‘then’ but suppressed the ‘now’. He was unaware that his backward gaze as he ignored the present erased all his experiences in between, but also made him see colour where there was only black and white.
Now he’s taken to ordering his photographs in an effort to tame his memories, thinking that placing them chronologically will have a reassuring effect. He’s also taken the suggestion that, photo or no, he write his memories down with as much detail as he can remember, one a day. He must set the scene of each memory, describe the circumstances and the people and articulate the thoughts and emotions he remembers feeling at the time. This is makes him externalize them in a way that reverie, even when looking at the photographs, cannot.
So I tell him this: As you do this work, think like an artist. Don’t be sucked in by the emotion and don’t let the photograph help you disregard the present. As you sort the pictures, be the photographer, the one who holds the camera, not the unsuspecting subject in it being fixed in time. Imagine you, the today you, are taking each photograph, not just looking at it. And as you write, pay attention, let the memories inform you, note the hidden details or the things those pictured could not see coming, link one photograph to the next with the things the camera didn’t capture.
See the past with the knowledge you didn’t have then, for instance that your family was boarding a boat because it was being driven from its native country by a hostile new national government, that you would never see your friend again because he was left behind, that you had to abandon your dog. Flesh in the environment, the history, the politics, and the other external things you now know influenced the “then” in ways you could maybe neither avoid nor control.
The thing is, he needn’t be a victim of the emotions the memory triggers; he needn’t fear or wallow in them. He knows much more than he did then, he is much more than he was then. If he can let that knowledge lead him to new insights and discoveries about the person all those experiences made him today, good and bad, how much richer will the remembering make him!