“Well, it depends what you mean by ‘memory’…”

It’s become increasingly clear in both my reading and my conversations with people about my ongoing work that the word ‘memory’ has multiple meanings dependent on context.

Consider the different connotations of the word in the following phrases:

  • I have a good memory (overall system)
  • I have a good memory for names but a bad memory for faces (sub-systems)
  • I have a good memory of that (implies factual details)
  • I have good memories of that (implies emotional resonance)

Simultaneously the concept of memory can be:

  • Active (I need to remember this)
  • Passive (I just remembered something)
  • Individual (I remember the miners’ strike)
  • Collective (South Yorkshire remembers the miners’ strike)

From an academic point of view memory can be examined as:

  • A psychological or emotional phenomenon
  • A historical / archival phenomenon
  • A neuro-scientific phenomenon

This last way of examining memory can be further divided into:

  • Types: working / short-term / long-term memory
  • Processes: encoding / storage / retrieval

The polysemous nature of such a commonplace word can be problematic, as people tend to have a particular meaning in mind when they say, write, read or hear it, and checking the understanding of another party in the discussion doesn’t always seem necessary.

Memory isn’t just memories

Interestingly, memory is a lot more than most people think it is.

In my research around the subject of memory (in a scientific and sociological sense) there was a lightbulb moment in reading a book called Memory: A Very Short Introduction (2009) by Jonathan Foster. This introduced a particular way of looking at memory with the following quote from neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga:

“Everything in life is memory, save for the thin edge of the present.”
(Gazzaniga 2000, in Foster 2009: 2)

Foster expands on this:

“Memory allows us to recall birthdays, holidays, and other significant events that may have taken place hours, days, months, or even many years ago. Our memories are personal and ‘internal’, yet without memory we wouldn’t be able to undertake ‘external’ acts – such as holding a conversation, recognizing our friends’ faces, remembering appointments, acting on new ideas, succeeding at work, or even learning to walk.”
(Foster 2009: 2)

This was a mind-exanding moment for me. The lived human experience is built on a personal memory system: in addition to what are generally recognised as ‘memories’, the knowledge and skills you possess, the opinions you hold, the emotional reactions you display, your relationships to others – all are in essence simply what you remember them to be. We tend to believe that our memories are based on reality, yet the relationship might make more sense if reversed.

Memory and photography

In most everyday language the meaning is evident from the context. However, when one talks about memory and photography, the relationship between the two is so strong and deep that a certain level of ‘accepted wisdom’ tends to take hold.

Photography is generally seen as an aid to memory, as it freezes moments in time in what is generally held to be an indexical manner. It has a reputation for authenticity and veracity that works as a visual support to one’s own memory system.

There are counter-theories that suggest that photography’s relationship with memory is more problematic, and that photography can distort and simplify memories through their subjective, restricted viewpoints and the authorial hand of the photographer and/or any editor.

Photography can be tied very closely with nostalgia, and old photographs can carry an aura of significance simply because they depict people and lifestyles that no longer exist.

There are many, many photography projects that are ‘about memory’ in one way or another. Several people have said to me since I started on this examination of memory a variation on the idea that “all photography is about memory”.

If all photography is about memory, how can I find something new to say? Or if not “new” (is anything wholly original?), how can I find something that is particularly mine to say.

Up until now I’ve been reasonably confident that I do have something to say about memory, but haven’t been great at articulating it. The last section of this post is my attempt to better explain what aspects of memory I wish to investigate.

What I’m talking about when I talk about memory

Before describing what I am interested in, I want to set some parameters by ruling out the aspects of memory that I am not overtly interested in (I say overtly as who knows what is going on in my subconscious…):

My BoW projects are not intended to be directly about:

  • Nostalgia
  • Childhood memories
  • Relationship between photography and memory
  • Relationship between reality and memory
  • Collective (archival) memory
  • Psychological or emotional aspects of memory

I’d like to define my area of interest as:

  • The processes of everyday memory

By this I mean: I am fascinated by how memory works. How we take in information, how we store it, how we recall it. Not the big things like life events but the small, everyday work of memory. I am equally fascinated by the unreliable, fragmentary nature of memory, which we tend to think of as pretty robust and coherent.

I want to look at memory processes in quite an analytical (rather than emotional) way. I want to hold memory up for examination, poke into it, see how it operates, and how and why it fails.

My initial interest in memory stems from an increasing feeling that mine is starting to fray around the edges. I am getting more absent-minded as I get older. This body of work is, in a roundabout way, all about me investigating something that I am personally curious about.

In a sentence:

  • Rather than examine the relationship between photography and memory…
  • … I want to use photography to examine memory itself


Foster, J. K. (2009) Memory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press