The Relationship of Photographs, History, and Memory Essay

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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
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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 environment where their subjective and objective qualities are applied to the private uses of photographic images in the perpetuation of memory.

Photographs are also manifestations of time and records of experience. Consequently, writings on photographic theory are filled with references to representations of the past. Roland Barthes (1981, 76), for instance,
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