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Remembering to forget

The shift from memory to communication and identity

If photography’s role is preserving things that are no more, then it performs essentially the same function as memory. But post-photography has a different function. Instead of helping photographers and viewers to remember “dead” moments, post-photography helps them to communicate and to define who they are.

Photography performs the function of memory.

André Bazin called photography an “embalmer of time.” In the words of José van Dijck, it serves as a form of “autobiographical remembering” (58). In both of these definitions, the primary purpose of a photograph is to remember what has been but is no more. According to Van Dijck, photography has always had other functions as well—including communication and identity formation—but these have traditionally taken a backseat to memory (58).

Post-photography no longer makes sense as a way of preserving memories.

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Like life in the postmodern worldview, post-photography is transient. In the digital era, memory cards can be erased (Murray 157). There is a sense that digital photos are “disposable,” that they no longer carry the same sense permanence as film photos (Murray 156) As a result, temporariness has become an accepted characteristic of the new, post-photographic medium (Murray 156).

None of this is to say that post-photography has nothing to do with memory. Post-photography does not dispose of memory entirely, but instead, redefines it. In the new medium, memory emerges from the networking and distribution of photos instead of in the photos themselves (Van Dijck 59). Instead of the personal memories of traditional photography, this “collective memory” is the stuff of photo-sharing services like Flickr. Under this model, the camera provides the raw materials from which memories can be constructed (Trachtenberg 114). If photography takes photos to preserve memories, post-photography takes photos to invent them.

Post-photography serves primarily as a form of communication.

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Rather than a visual history, post-photography serves as a visual language. This shift became clearest with the advent of the cameraphone, an event that signaled what Van Dijck has described as a “merging of oral and visual modalities” (62). In effect, pictures now function much in the same ways as spoken words (Van Dijck 62). This notion—that imagery can communicate on the same level as language—is a truly postmodern understanding. It contradicts modern theories of communication such as those proposed by Neil Postman.

Even as post-photography joins language as a partner in postmodern discourse, scholars have recognized that images do not communicate in exactly the same fashion as words. According to psychologist John Suler, post-photography communicates in ways that are more “holistic, emotional, personal, imaginative, symbolic, and influenced by the unconscious” than language (555). Even so, the net effect of this change is that photographs are becoming more like words: meaningful only in a particular context. The result, according to Van Dijck, is that “the value of individual pictures decreases while the general significance of visual communication increases” (62).

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Despite its importance, not all participants in post-photography are aware of the shift from memory to communication. In one study, teenage subjects told researchers that they used photography as a way to preserve memories, when in reality, they actually used it as a means of “social communication” (Van Dijck 61). Another instructive case study comes from the Abu Ghraib prison photos, which began appearing in the media in May 2004. According to Van Dijck, the images were taken by soldiers operating under the photographic model (69). They wanted the pictures to preserve their private memories, however gruesome. When the images reached media outlets, though, they became a form of public communication, the hallmark of the post-photographic model (Van Dijck 68). As a result, the photos are remembered not as preservers of a particular moment but rather, for the messages about torture and brutality that they carried.

Post-photography can also serve as a tool for identity formation.

This function signals a shift from preservation of family memories to self-presentation through images (Van Dijck 60). As evidence, research shows that subjects can be fooled into reimagining their pasts when shown altered pictures of themselves (Van Dijck 63). According to Van Dijck, pictures tell us how to remember our former selves (63). They help us to build memories not just of other, but also of ourselves. These memories can function powerfully in influencing our ideas of who we are and how we relate to those around us.