Memory within Photography

by Mihaela Manolache

The invention of photography has forever changed the visual side of human existence by recording in its medium images of people, cultures, habits, foods, landscapes, and life aspects in all its colours and shapes. The beginnings of the photographic technique were troubling due to its magical power to depict people and things. Remote communities even considered the photographic device an evil tool to capture someone’s ”soul” and to possess the person. Artists felt threatened by the powers of photography to reproduce a still life and a portrait like no human ever could. Scientists promoted this innovative procedure and were exhilarated by its results. Merchants speculated about the business opportunity and helped to spread and improve the technique.


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Shortly every respectable family owned a personal photograph and proudly exhibited the picture in their houses. New artistic movements emerged due to the invention of photography. If a photograph could capture so precisely a corner from reality, why should art try to overpass that perfection? Instead, art should trigger reflection and capture not a specific image but a vibe, an atmosphere, a sensation, and movement. Impressionism is the answer of art to the perfection of photography. Since these troubled beginnings more than 200 years have passed and today photography is one of the main sectors of visual arts. The technique is widely spread and accessible to everyone. 

The devices have become so popular that each of us can express parts of our lives through photography. Social media seems to be a network specially created for visual content sharing and we can truly say that photography is present everywhere, in all its possible shapes and quality. As we stock up on hundreds of pictures, many devices help us to store our photographs online and offline. With time images turn from momentum to fragments of real life trapped in a picture, they become memories and by using a system of an archive, photographs constitute a powerful resource concerning mnemonic aspects, history, and cultural documentation and investigation.

Photography and Memory

Memories are pieces of our experiences that define us as individuals. All autobiographical memories are stored in a particular region of the brain that is called the hippocampus. Without the hippocampus, none of us would remember any new experiences in the long term. It seems that this region of the brain is guilty of creating a coherent story of the self. Likewise, a photograph registers on film or a digital device on a card a piece of information about the past that we can visualise in the present time. If memory is something we find only in our brain and affects us from the inside to the outside, a photograph can activate memory recall from the outside to the inside.

By Elliott Erwitt
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by Elliott Erwitt via Museo Reina Sofia

A photograph serves as a tool to determine the brain to recall what happened, where happened, and when it happened. Vision is directly involved in the process of making memories, this is why any process of learning for children that includes seeing takes place at a deeper level of understanding and it is easily retained. When viewing old pictures, these are not just impersonal facts but one can experience associated emotions such as nostalgia, anger, or happiness. Photography can be a channel for bringing back past moments and reviving a set of feelings in a different context.

Storytelling in Images

Although all photographs bear memories in themselves and narrate stories of the past, the subject is concentrated on a particular moment and is the trapped representation of one single moment. Storytelling photography focuses on building compelling and fascinating stories using a set of multiple images. Everyone has probably come across storytelling photography by now considering it’s a common practice, especially for travel magazines.

This particular filiation inside the art of photography is interested not so much in capturing a subject in a good posture or light but to underline an action that the viewer can easily follow and immerse in the journey. Many professionals state that a good photo raises the interest of the public but a great photo activates the public’s imagination and engages emotionally as they visualise the story. Storytelling photography allows each of us to experience the journey as it happens and the viewer can even participate or imagine what could happen in the next series of photographs. When images tell a story that the public connects with it is less probable that the series of photographs will be quickly forgotten. Nice photos are great to look at but their effect won’t last long-term. If the photos have both emotional and intellectual content the impact is greater than that of a pretty picture and a process of learning is activated. 

Sebastião Salgado
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Gold Mine by Sebastião Salgado via Sotheby’s

Creating storytelling photography is a complex task that involves concept, composition, lighting, trigger, and finale. In the case of a video, one can use hundreds of frames to represent an action. In contrast, photography is a static medium that recreates action in a short succession of images by appealing to the imagination, creativity, and intellect of the viewer. Visual storytelling invites the viewer to explore the images and their stories by staring back at them.

Every element of the composition – people, animals, or landscapes are visually appealing and full of emotional content. Visual storytelling draws the audience to a deeper level of understanding so viewers can connect at an affective level and be spiritually driven by its content. Like any other genuine work of art, storytelling photography too appeals to reflection, offers several reading layers, and asks the viewer to consciously participate in the journey.

Memory within Photography

Clear narrative structures are important in the outline of the subject. Just like a novel has a plot, visual storytelling follows a similar pattern. This cohesive line helps the viewer to understand the story from the beginning to the end. More than this, the brain associates the images with a previous experience or desire. For instance, if a series of pictures depicts the African desert and the viewer has never been there, the story within the photography unleashes both the known reality with facts from the media and the unconscious side of the intellect (hidden desires, ancestral patterns, dreams, etc).

Storytelling photography can be provocative and trigger the memory of the known and the unknown, the memory of archetypal patterns and structures that have been part of our human construction since the beginning of time. From happy and funny stories to heritage, drama, and suffering, visual storytelling covers subjects from surrealism to describing human existence. Sebastião Salgado, Erik Johansson and August Bradley are some of the most famous contemporary storytellers in the art of photography. Their work stretches the imagination and turns our world upside down. The theatrical conceptions swing between imaginary scenes and everyday aspects of our lives. Photographers intentionally overpass the boundaries of their art to provoke, inspire and suggest.

August Bradley
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By August Bradley via My Modern Met

Alain Schroeder won the second prize at the International Photography Awards in 2020 with a series of storytelling photographs taken in Kyrgyzstan, depicting a national sports competition, Kok Boru. His black and white compositions are captivating for the energy they release, the subject, and the realisation. Large-scale monochromatic photographs represent a traditional habit in Central Asia, in which both men and beats are intertwined, shrouded in a dusty gauze. Schroeder’s pieces do not limit only to a sportive representation but underline the heritage of a country, a cultural legacy transmitted by generations that are little known to the Western world.

Nowadays, maybe the most important aspect of visual storytelling is the fact that it is accessible to everyone. Each of us can create meaningful photographs just for personal use. We can create an archive for our children with their earliest memories, funniest moments, or important episodes from their lives. We can save thousands of moments in this form, moments we can remember for many years whenever we want. This type of stored memory is a tool we all love and appreciate. 

Storytelling photography can also be a great tool for studying and learning at any age. Adults develop a sense of overview, composition, and beauty, children reinforce their remembrance capacity and observation skills and we all love seeing how our person has changed over time and reflecting upon the cycle of life and death. 

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