I'm about to get all theoretical and philosophical on you, and well... I'm sorry for that.
It's a lonely profession, this business of mine. There are many hours alone at my desk, editing photos, preparing social media posts, creating marketing material, etc.
Because of this, I tend to listen to NPR to fill a little lonely void and to grow my mind. and sometimes a story hits me, and completely alters the way I think about something. Even sometimes alters the way I think about something I feel I can (fairly confidently say) I'm somewhat of an expert at... my own field of work. While listening to Guy Raz's Ted Radio Hour today, I felt compelled to actually spell out the scientific reason on the importance of memories, and why I feel like I'm more in the business of memory retrieval than just a photographer.
Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, is retired from Princeton. Guy Raz talks with him about memories, and he has some fairly interesting theories. From Guy Raz:
"Daniel Kahneman has done a lot of thinking about memory - how an experience and a memory of that experience are two different things, which was the focus of Daniel's TED Talk. You start with a story about a man who attended one of your lectures. He said he'd been listening to a symphony."
"KAHNEMAN: And it was absolutely glorious music. And at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound.
And he said a very interesting sentence, he said, and that ruined the whole experience. And I thought, oh my God, that's ridiculous.
What it had ruined were the memory of the experience. He had had the experience, he had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing. Because he was left with a memory, the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.
We tend to confuse memories with the real experience that gave rise to those memories."
So what does this mean for photography?
With photography, I can alter people's memories. Lets say that big screetch at the end of the beautiful symphony was actually something terrible that happened at the end of your wedding. You're left feeling like the day was ruined. Then you get your photographs back from your photographer, and all of these moments come back to you- beautifully captured- people laughing, sun shining, little moments you had forgotten. It can be restorative, it can be healing.
Is this why wedding photography is prized so highly? because of the importance of the psychological effect it can have after one of the most beautiful days of your life- a turning point? That it is a sort of 'insurance' on your psychological well-being? and concurrently, if the photographer is inexperienced and disappoints... does that also color the memory of the day in a negative light? how much is all of that worth?
The birth of my first son was a terrible experience in the moment. Dustin was traveling for work in Florida, and I wasn't due for another few weeks. All of a sudden tornadoes began to touch down all around us, flood waters rose, dams broke and houses and streets were swept away with rushing water. I went into labor and called Dustin to come home immediately- catch the soonest possible flight. Little did I know, all the airports within a 3 state radius had been shut down due to the weather. I was 22, unmarried, and about to deliver a baby without the most important person in my life. I didn't think I could ever forgive him though I knew it wasn't his fault.
But two things happened. 1) my two best girlfriends and my mother rushed to my side. other friends filed in just to check on me during labor.... and I have a photograph of it. 2) Dustin and I went on to have another son, and I had a birth photographer present. Now, when I look back on the conglomeration of these photographs- of friends and loved ones surrounding me, my memory is altered a bit. I remember the parts where I felt wholly and completely surrounded with love and support. Now, I am at the point where I feel so amazed and thankful that I had an all-female support team for my first baby- it makes me feel even more connected to my gender and full of power and achievement. Looking through the photographs of the birth of my second baby, and seeing my husband at my side through the whole thing and the way he supported me was the moment when I stopped having nightmares about delivering babies alone (which had haunted me for 3 years).
Photography can do funny things to memories and mental states.
People like to say "photographs are important because you cant get those moments back" I think what they are really meaning to say is that memories are lost forever. they are gone. the human brain is not able to store that kind of information. Days, weeks, months, YEARS are lost forever. We may remember the highlights, but the little mundane moments are gone.
why? Kahneman has a good theory for this.
KAHNEMAN: You know, if you were to design an animal and you were economizing on how complicated the brain of that animal would be, you might say, well, I want the animal to store the peak and to store the end, and how long the episode was really doesn't matter. What matters is how bad were the threat and whether the story ended well. That's what the animal needs in order to plan the future. To decide whether to have that encounter again or to avoid it at all costs.
RAZ: But what about simple, everyday moments? What happens to those memories?
KAHNEMAN: And the answer is really straightforward: they are lost forever. I mean, most of the moments of our life and I calculated, you know, the psychological present is said to be about three seconds long. That means that in a life there are about 600 million of them, in a month there about 600,000. Most of them don't leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, somehow you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life. It's the finite resource that we're spending while we're on this Earth. And how to spend it would seem to be relevant. But that is not the story that the remembering self keeps for us."
I have a memory. It is when we were living in florida, and renting this little house that had a trampoline in the backyard. I believe we were laying on the trampoline, and I remember saying to myself 'please please please remember this moment. Dont forget this moment. Remember exactly how it feels, I know it is jut a regular moment, but don't let this one slip away' and that is all that I remember. I remembering TELLING myself to remember it, but I dont remember IT. Were we laying on the trampoline? Can't quite remember. Were the dogs there with us? Dont know. Was it sunny or rainy or morning or night or what was the thing that made me feel sentimental in the first place? How old were the kids? Was Pierson even born yet? Actually.... I don't even know if any of this really even happened at all. It's like telling yourself not to forget something, and you remember the reminder, but you don't remember what it is you're supposed to remember.
So what will we have of this life? If memories are subjective and we only get 3 second highlights of a few moments in life...
the answer scares me.
10 minutes total? 20? maybe 30 minutes or so of life remembered somewhat subjectively? if that is the case, then do photographs of moments give us extra time and memories? Do they, therefore, extend our memorable lives longer?
I don't want to sound posthumous.... but, if this is true, then is photography on the same sort of theoretical playing field as say, a life-saving drug treatment? if both extend lives- one physical and one mental?
If that sounds ridiculous, then what of this question...
If people talk about 'quality of life' being important, are we also taking into account the MEMORY of that quality of life? or just the psychological present that will be lost and forgotten regardless, in less than 1 week?
So therefore, would you rather have a shorter actual lifespan but a longer memory of your life, or a longer lifespan with little memory?
If the former, then what is the importance on photography in your life?
Perhaps you feel it sounds ego-centric that I'm all 'but what of my lost memories?!" but if the purpose of this life is to live it to the fullest, then I think concurrently I'd also like to REMEMBER those fullest-moments, and help other people to do the same. It will all be lost eventually someday, when we physically die, but I feel at least a little comforted that the little moments that would have died and been lost from my memory can have a little longer shelf life in there.
Excuse me while I now go and photograph my children and the everyday mundane of my life, because I know that is the stuff that is going to slip away from me next week. I wont even remember what it felt like to type these words. This moment right now, this very moment, is going to be lost forever. And likely, for you too. this moment will die just as soon as you finish reading these words, and it will also be erased from your memory, like so many moments before have been systematically wiped.