It started with a quote.
A friend of mine, a photographer, is taking a break from his art in order to better understand what it is that compels him to view life through a lens. He wants to know why it is he prefers to have the camera there as some sort of barrier between himself and reality. Why it is he prefers to record a moment, rather than experience it directly.
While he thinks, his website has been laid bare. If you go there, all there is, is a simple quote:
â€œWe photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.”
– Kafka, quoted in Roland Barthes Camera Lucida.
I read this and contemplate it for an instant. But not for long.
Itâ€™s not the time for thinking. So I go and do something else instead. Get on with the day.
But it wonâ€™t leave my head, this quote.
For several reasons I suppose.
For one, I can’t stop thinking of my friend, and the fact that he is giving up photography, if only briefly. It haunts me. Because he is a photographer. No matter what he thinks, he can do it. It is a way for him to express himself. So I worry about this pause. About this apparent self-doubt.
Later in the day, I am online again, talking to another friend of mine who is also a photographer.
I mention the Barthes quote, say something about how I despair at my friend, mention that I think perhaps he “thinks too much”.
My friend just smiles. He has been there before himself. He recognises this feeling. Recognises it from way back, from a trip to Turkey, where he carried his camera, only to realise, that this apparatus, this glass eye, was getting in the way of his experience.
Not only was it placing a barrier between himself and the things he was observing, it was causing the things that were being observed, to mutate in some way. The objects and people photographed, were not being experienced, they were being observed, documented. They were becoming something other than a memory.
As he clicked the shutter, he noticed that the people he was photographing were only being “themselves” when they were unaware of the presence of the camera.
On seeing that eye, however, in the presence of that demonic lens, they transformed. They went from being people on the street, to being actors in a scene. A fake thing. Photographed and documented as real, but somehow fake nonetheless.
My friend stood on the street that day and realised that if he was not careful, then those photos he was taking, those captured images, would be the only images, the only “memory” he would have of events, and that those “memories”, would be as real, as those people who magically transformed in the presence of his camera.
So he put the camera down and began simply to observe the scene around him. To memorise events instead.
He relates this tale to me and lets me know that most photographers go through this transition, this strange phase, when they question not only why they are trying to capture an image, but the verity of the image itself.
We sign out for the night and I go to sleep and think about what he just told me.
The next day, I’m in the library working.
The only spare seat is on the floor among the architecture and arts books. Fair enough. I take the last free desk, sit down, and glance to my left to see a stack of magazines about photography.
One of them features on the cover a half naked Chinese girl, smoking a cigarette and dressed as a Mao solider. She is leaning, rather suggestively, over a bedraggled captured insurgent. It is a tableau, a mise en scene of recent Chinese revolutionary history. Needless to say, it catches my eye.
What the hell I think, I’ll just have a wee look at this before I start working.
So I do. Inside, one image in particular captures my attention.
Three people are sitting in a train. A man and woman, dressed in forties style clothes, and a child.
They all appear to have fallen asleep in their seats. It is clearly an abandoned train. It is dusty and tattered and a weak light, speckled with dust particles, filters through. Outside the window we see another train on the opposite platform. Both trains are not moving but it appears the sleeping passengers are unaware that their journey is over.
They seem to have been abandoned there. It’s almost as if they are part of some long forgotten era. Perhaps they are lying there sleeping and imagining the journey they think they are on, a journey which has now ended?
Perhaps it is a metaphor for China, that great mercantile nation, that is slowly wakening from some strange, enchanted slumber. These people, dressed in their clothes from another era, are from a different China. A place of the past. A past that is now sidelined and is slowly being forgotten.
In any case it is a very mesmerising image.
I go read the article about the photographer, Wang Ningde.
The author of the article describes the photo, from a series entitled “Some Day” thus:
“Some Day is proof of the magical interconnection between reality and memory. Because they need each other, reality and memory consult one another and construct an absolute synthesis in which memorable reality and actual memory can hardly be separated. Without memory as its backdrop reality is perhaps quite pale; and without the mirror of reality, memory itself becomes somniloquy. ….Looking at his photographs, what we can share is not his experience, but his consciousness of time, his point of view of the world, his attitudes towards life and his mental images.” Full Details Here
I read this, and recall the conversation of the previous day about photography and memory. About reality and memory. That interconnectedness. And it seems as though this book, this photograph was a little treasure sitting there waiting for me, that I was supposed to find. A coincidence perhaps?
I read the article and dutifully take notes of all the things I read so I can relate them later.
When I do get home, I receive a message in my mail box, from Open Democracy, a website I subscribe to.
One of the articles is discussing digital photography.
It ponders our obsession with viewing life through a lens, our ability to accept a digitally recorded viewpoint as a legitimate viewpoint in itself, just like Phillip K Dickâ€™s â€œreplicantsâ€ in Blade Runner, whose implanted memories seem no less real to them than our own, digitally recorded ones today.
I read all this, look at all those images, ponder the fact that all of this information is coming towards me, and wonder why.
Am I supposed to be remembering all this. Is that it? If so, why?
After all, I rarely carry a camera. I love photographic images, it’s true. But not my own. And not just because I’m a lousy photographer either.
No. I rarely carry a camera, because I simply prefer not to separate myself from my experience.
I need to be in a moment completely, and a camera, for me, is a barrier to that. It is a physical presence, an eye, a recorder that gets in the way. That gets in the way between me and the world.
Or so I thought.
Because I’ve been thinking about it. Thinking about how I do remember things. Camera or no camera, my memory is, at best,hazy.
I recall more the mood of a moment, the smells, the thoughts, what I did the day before, or the day after. What I recalled, from previous years, when I was confronted with a new situation.
I think about how it all intermingles in the mind, these things we call memories.
In that respect, memory is not so time specific, is not so sharp and exact. It is a mixture of senses and experiences. A composite. Something our eye and our brain manufactures.
I think about this and return to the Barthes quote.
It is unfinished. It goes further.
It goes like this:
“We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.”
I read it. Then I read it again. What did it mean?
I sat and contemplated it for an instant. I guess it means that, it is the image we create, the story we formulate in our heads, behind closed eyes, that in the end, construct our memories. It’s what we think about the things we see that matters in the end.
Even the images we photograph. They need not be false memories. They need not be replications. They can be real. They can be valid.
If, in the end, we know what those images mean to us, what it was we thought of, as we stood there and captured them, then the image that stares back at us later from the screen, the memory that prompts us to recall whatever it is that lies behind our closed eyes, is totally valid, is totally real. No?