In Excess? On Photography, Memories, and Meaning-Making

In recent years, I’ve frequently found myself returning to Stuart Hall’s writing and work on meaning-making and shared conceptual maps. In the words of Hall (1997) “…if we shared no concepts together with other folks, we literally could not make sense of the world together”.

What role does photography play in the formation of such shared conceptual maps?

How does visual culture contribute to both shared and individual understandings of “the world”?

Hall’s words on both the interiority and external expression of meaning-making processes has helped me to gather and think through some of my thoughts on the relationship between photography and memories (or, at least, the relationship between them in my life). This blog piece is titled “In Excess?” in response to thoughtful and open discussions had as part of an Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) event that I spoke at in London (as part of Image Behaviour 2022).

The event built on my work on “Dial M for the Mirage of Memories” to explore the role of digital technology in experiences of memory-making, including forms of nostalgia, reminiscing, and memorialising. This involved me speaking about some of the ways that digital remix culture has developed in recent years, while reflecting on the relationship between this and the creation of collective memories, both before and during the COVID-19 crisis. Focusing on themes such as humour, care, commodification, intimacy, grief, and time, everyone considered how their memories may be entangled with digital culture (in both “good” and “not so good” ways).

Following my talk, “Remember When? Digital Culture, Memory-Making and Remixing”, dialogue with all who were there involved sharing and responding to thoughts on a wide range of themes such as the following:

  • The impact of what is absent from photographs (or what is out of sight), as well as the impact of what is depicted, impressions of why it is depicted, and how it is depicted.
  • The role of photography in remembering, celebrating and memorialising loved ones.
  • How the specifics of people’s lives and material conditions affect their (in)access to, and engagement with, photography and related technology and devices.
  • How photography plays a part in memory retrieval efforts, including those that may be shaped by neurodivergence.
  • How photographs may lead to more questions than those that they “answer”, and the beauty and fun in that.
  • Assumptions about how much is “too much” photography (and feelings about how much is “not enough”).
  • The overwhelming volume of photography, images, and (social media) content “out there”.
  • Photography as both enabling and constraining a sense of feeling present, engaged, and grounded (including when at “live” events such as gigs).
  • Differences between the “everydayness” of experiences of photography and forms of photography that are about an occasion, an event, a ritual.
  • Generational differences concerning how photography is experienced and its status in society.
  • The materiality of photography (from the feeling and textures of images to the process of developing photos).
  • The power and pleasure of “gazing back” at a world that often objectifies, fetishises, and seeks to “capture” you.
  • How colonialism has impacted visual culture, narratives about history, and archiving in ways that continue to be challenged, including via photography.
  • The significance of photography in forms of activism and community organising, including the work of Black queer organisers.
  • People’s emotional attachment to, or detachment from, photography.
  • The preciousness and precariousness of photographs of “times before”.
  • The impermanence of photography and its ever-present nature.

Questions that we considered included:

  • (How) are memories that aren’t “captured” or “(re)presented” in photographs or visuals different to memories that are?
  • What does it mean to reimagine memories that were once tied to photographs that no longer exist? How might the memories differ and why?
  • What role does photography/do photographs play in some of your memories?

While I am continuing to reflect on all of what was discussed during the conversation that formed that day, I’ve been particularly interested in thinking about the notion of there ever being “too much” or “not enough” photography. I guess, I’m interested in when, why, and how, photographs (be it physical albums of them or digital archives) come to be regarded as excessive in nature – from the moral panic that can surround selfie culture and technological developments, to the chastising and policing of photographers whose work challenges the narratives of the nation-state.

How much photography is “too much” photography, and who determines this, and how?

Part of the discussion at the ICA that has sparked this blog piece was based on thoughts shared concerning the emotional impact of losing photographs, as well as the feelings involved in thinking that photographs have been lost, but then being able to retrieve them. That day, I spoke a bit about the following experience, which I have previously written about when co-leading the “Critical Visual Dialogues” course with Daniel Lynds and the Digital Pedagogy Lab in 2020:

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A few year ago, I lost over 40,000 photographs.

I won’t bore you with the details of how that happened, but I will share with you how this experience made me feel and some of the many questions and ponderings that it surfaced.

When I found out that I had lost 40,000+ photographs, my first thought was “which of those photographs meant the most to me and how will my life be different now that they no longer exist (or I no longer have access to them?”. Here, I am reminded of the insightful work of Daniel Wade Clarke who has written extensively on autoethnography and grief. In the words below of Clarke (2020), in his article, “First My Dad, Then My iPhone: An Autoethnographic Sketch of Digital Death:

Potentially lousy singing and research poetry are used to make sense of losing—soon after he died—my iPhone containing video footage of my father singing. Since I did not back up this digital treasure, not only is he now physically dead, he is digitally dead (MONCUR, 2016) too. Considering how bereavement is shaped by digital death, in this article I focus on my experience of grief following this double loss. How is a lost video and the device that stored my memories impacting my encounter with loss? Haunting, and being haunted by, digital technology and the lost treasure, I write my way through this combined loss, showing what (im)mortality in a digital context brings me into contact with. I hope this writing connects with and encourages those struggling to persevere with similar technology-based hauntings

When I lost many photographs several years ago, I cycled through different reactions. I thought of the various ways that I might be able to retrieve the images. I panic searched for solutions. I stressed about what the impact of losing the images may be. I reminded myself that they were “just” images (obviously, that did not help). Reading Daniel Wade Clarke’s (2020) words were a reminder that for lots of people, a photograph (and/or a video) contains many layers of meaning that may shift, or unfold, as life changes.

I think it took me at least several months after losing the 40,000+ photographs to get to the point where I could confidently admit to myself that the photographs would never be any sort of “just”. I’d miss them. I do miss them. But the photographs themselves were only part of how I forge and revisit memories (and continue to be connected to all who are part of them). The photographs themselves were never the people, places, and points in my life that they (re)presented.

I would like to thank Daniel for his words, work, and support. Were it not for how generously he has shared about his own experiences (including at a point that ended up being when I was on the precipice of grief), I do not think I would have been able to the find the words that I needed to sit with and think through grief, while also celebrating the lives of the loved ones who I miss.

My 40,000+ photographs are gone but perhaps the fun I had when taking some of these images (and with the people who are part of many of them) was always more important to me than the images themselves.

This is a long-winded way of inviting you to reflect on the role of photographs in memories, including maybe some of your own.

How do people form memories?

How do people revisit, retrieve, or reimagine them?

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but maybe so are our memories that are never depicted.

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When speaking with other people about this experience of losing photographs, various themes and topics that have arisen (beyond it potentially being a cautionary tale about archiving photography) include different views on what constitutes “a lot of photographs”. People have also shared different thoughts on whether “losing” photographs is an upsetting, or, at least, unsettling, experience.

As someone who has always tended to take “a lot” of photographs, including as part of the ways that I try to remember and plan things (while navigating my ADHD), I’m aware that my thoughts on the idea of photography ever being “in excess” are informed by my everyday inclination to take (“lots of”) photographs. I mean, what’s the worse that can happen (you lose them all?)…

Sure, I’m wary of speaking about photography in ways that seem to quantify it and are based on the idea of there ever being “too much” or “not enough of it”. However, I also recognise that there are many power dynamics involved in photography (including the experiences of people behind and/or in front of the lens). This means that, depending on who and what claims of photographic “excess” and/or “scarcity” are made in relation to, such claims can be a means to oppress others, or a means to express agency and pursue forms of autonomy and freedom.

I guess, that’s my way of saying that I am still thinking about how the concepts of “excess” and “scarcity” move around discussions and debates about photography and “the gaze”, including in ways that can reveal much about societal norms, personal experiences, and a sense of collectiveness or community.

To turn once more to the words of Hall (1997), “we all don’t make sense of things in the same way…therefore each of us has a little kind of conceptual world of our own…or rather, we have our own sort of take on the conceptual world”, and, for some (myself included), photography is a central part of such worlds.