I’ve been thinking about, but not writing about, Assignment 2 on and off for several weeks now. It’s been at the back of my mind all the time I was working on my first assignment for Contextual Studies.
For a long time it was going to be about misremembering, as a kind of companion piece to Assignment 1 which was about forgetting. I had in mind some image manipulation ideas similar to those used in Assignment 1 but at the service of a different concept.
I tried one idea, based on manipulating iconic photographs to be similar-but-different to the originals (simplified, to emulate one aspect of misremembering: loss of fine detail). However, I went off the idea for two (connected) reasons, one of which extends to all of my subsequent alternative ideas around misremembering – to the point that I am setting the whole misremembering concept aside.
The problem with misremembering
Firstly, when I shared the mockup above with a peer student group, the interpretation was different to that which I had expected: instead of reading the image as being about the fallibity of memory, my student buddies thought that I was making a comment about authenticity in photography. Photography’s (sometimes problematic) relationship with ‘truth’ dominated the reading of the work – perhaps this is down to the fundamental nature of a photograph, real but not real (a subject for another day, in fact maybe for another student…). So instead of provoking thought about the unreliability of memory, it made viewers think about whether the photograph was ‘true’ or not. This wasn’t my intention, making this a case of a negotiated reading (Hall 1980).
This realisation (that authenticity overrides memory as the theme of the image) became something of a blocker for me, and one which I have not been able to overcome as it applies to all of my subsequent ideas on this theme! I had a number of other ideas (based on newly-captured images rather than appropriation) on depicting misremembering – all in one way or another intended to imply multiple memories of the same scene or event. I was considering image manipulations such as:
- Multiple exposures
- Grids showing slight variations of the same scene
- Printing variations of images on both sides of photo paper
However, even without mocking up these ideas, they became infected with the same potential misreading as my first concept – that the viewer would be looking for, or thinking about, which version is ‘true’, rather than pondering on the unreliable nature of personal memory.
I may not be explaining this particularly well! But in short, I no longer feel confident that I can depict my ideas of misremembering without them being too open to misinterpretation. I don’t believe I can translate my clarity of purpose into a clarity of communication.
Secondly, something that my tutor Wendy said in my Assignment 1 feedback session kept popping back into my mind: the question of the subject matter in the images. In Assignment 1 the visual concept and presentation format were both related to memory, but the actual images were not – they were a collection of snapshots of people selected from my own archive. Notions of memory came into the viewing experience, but there was no particular depth or resonance to the choice of images themselves. The set is, with hindsight, more of a formal technical exercise than a coherent project about memory.
Related to my first point above, in particular the appropriation concept, I realised that I’ve been making photography about photography. The images I had either mocked up or visualised for this assignment would, first and foremost, make viewers think about photography, not memory. A few weeks ago I visited the Thomas Ruff retrospective in London, and while I admired his technical exercises in different genres, ultimately I found it all to be quite shallow and sterile – a bit soulless. I realised that photography about photography is inherently self-referential. Surely there is more in the world to make photographic art about than photographs!
So my new challenge became: how do you incorporate an idea relating to memory into the subject matter itself?
Flip the script
The two dilemmas explained above led me to rethink what my Assignment 2 would be about. One technique I’ve learned for creative thinking when one is blocked is to see if there’s a way of looking at the situation an opposite way round. So as I’ve been concentrating on the depiction of forgetting/misremembering, I decided to invert my theme as follows:
What if I started looking for ideas on how to depict remembering?
My mind wandered back to July this year, when I did some event photography for my friends Ruth and Neil who run a local community initiative called Musical Memories, where older people get together and sing along to songs from the 1920s to the 1960s. It’s not an initiative specifically based around musical therapy for those suffering from issues with memory or cognitive decline – it’s very inclusive and has regular members who range from having no memory impairment, through mild age-related cognitive decline to severe dementia. What the participants have in common is an appreciation for singing songs from bygone eras.
Looking back through the photos I took for the July event I realised that I was, in effect, taking photographs of people remembering something. Furthermore, they were remembering something positive. Now, my original intention for this whole series of examinations of memory was that they would focus on the negative side of memory – when it fails. However, now I’m feeling like I should try looking at memory in a more positive light, and depict when it works!
Rather than try to re-use any of the images from the July event (when my intent was simply to capture some good publicity shots for the organisers) I arranged with Ruth and Neil to go along to one of their local sessions with the more specific brief of capturing images of individuals singing. For the avoidance of any future misunderstanding, my presence in the room taking photographs was explained and agreed to before the session started – and for the participants with significant cognitive decline, consent was obtained from their nominated carers.
I attended a Musical Memories singalong session last week, and am editing down the set today.
My immediate plan is to process one or two images, possibly using image manipulation techniques to some extent (my aesthetic interest remains in the realm of the creative treatment of photographs rather than ‘plain’ photographs) as I want to somehow visually incorporate the notion of the music itself into the image; I have a couple of ideas on this that I will try over the next day or so.
Then I will share these mockups with a peer student hangout in a couple of days. The feedback from that session will no doubt determine where I take this idea.
Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 20/10/2016)