The Relationship of Photographs, History, and Memory
Abstract: This essay reflects on the relationship of photographs, history, and memory based on a found and mutilated photo album. Photographs provide opportunities for disrupting and restructuring history with their attraction to memory; they privilege the subjective, creative power of the personal explanation and provide an emotional and even ideological grounding for memory. Photographs as manifestations of memory assist in the process of understanding the present.
As this century fades into the past it is worth remembering that its course--in contrast to earlier times--has been chronicled by a visual narrative that relies on the attraction of photographs as means of storing and disseminating information. Photographs emerge as documents of a lived experience, and their presence in the cultural milieu of technologically enhanced contemporary communication practices remains virtually unchallenged at the threshold to the twenty-first century.
Photographs are the story-telling companions of time, they direct the gaze of the spectator to ponder the past. Reflecting on our own lives we often refer to photographs whose presence conditions our recollection of people and events and keeps them alive. Recently I came across a small family album--a generation after the end of the Second World War--that had been left by an aunt who had saved it through times of expulsion, flight, and resettlement in West Germany. It had been severely cut--pierced but not destroyed by the thrust of a bayonet in 1945--when the invading Soviet army overran refugees and ransacked their belongings. Its sudden appearance in my life is a reminder of the power of photographs, the seductive specificity of the dated image, and the collective possibility of an extended visual narrative in considerations of memory. The violent markings of the photo album and its images, however, produce an equally powerful message that jars the memory as it disrupts and distorts the photographic chronicle of her life and that of her family and friends. The result is a complex visual experience that addresses the use of images in producing knowledge and making history.
Photographs are re-collections of the past. This essay is about photography, memory, and history and addresses the relationship between photographic images and the need to remember; it is based on the notion that seeing is a prelude to historical knowledge and that understanding the past relies on the ability to imagine. At the same time, the role of thought and imagination in the production of society--as reflected in the earlier work of Louis Althusser (1970), Maurice Godelier (1984) and perhaps more significantly, Cornelis Castoriadis (1975), suggests yet another role for photography in the construction of a social and cultural reality. Photographs in capitalist societies contribute to the production of information and participate in the surveillance of the...