If memory serves…

I’m interested in how and why our memories visit us—and in the many cues, visual or otherwise, that help us remember. Photographs are especially interesting (and obvious) memory cues: after all, in their uncompromising and authoritative retelling of the past, they are completely unlike memories, which are shaky, uncertain. Photographs exist to tell us, “No, no, no … this is how it really was.”

Like most people I know, I’ve accumulated too many photographs. They hide all over the place: mostly in boxes and frames and envelopes (never in albums) but sometimes underneath a pile of DVDs or in my glove box or maybe tucked into a book. Digging through some useless fourth-tier junk drawer recently, I came upon a rather damaged photo, water-spotted and scraped up by pencils, drywall screws, some Canadian coins, and whatever else had nested in that forgotten drawer.

When this particular photo was taken, I had been in Spain for just two rite-of-passage-filled days on my requisite post-college trip abroad. Brandon, my best friend from high school, took the photo, capturing this moment on a night when two friendly Madrilleñas shuttled us among an endless blur of cafés and restaurants and nightclubs and bars. I was intoxicated by every moment (and every glass of Spanish red) in this blissful collage of newness, and in my moment of drunken euphoria, I somehow leapt into an uncharacteristically exhibitionist pose:


As embarrassing (and jacked-up) as it is, this photo tells a story that’s an important part of my self-mythology, a story whose themes include the obvious coming-of-age clichés: lost innocence, found independence, discovered self-identity, etc. And when I look at it, I recall experiencing the kind of freedom that only exists when you’re young and an entire ocean from home, where and when your excitement foretells one thing: change. For Brandon, that change would involve meeting his future wife, one of the Madrilleñas, the lovely Elena, who spoke very little English to match Brandon’s non-existent Spanish, forcing them to communicate mostly through body language and grand gestures, like this popular pose:


For me, though, change simply meant I was going places. After a few days in Madrid, Brandon and I would travel for several weeks, making our way to the southern tip of Spain, to a town called Algeciras, where a short ferry ride would transport us from North to South (and, simultaneously, South to North), to Morocco, to Africa, to otherworldly adventure. I remember that ferry ride. I remember leaning over the railing as the Mediterranean floated by on the left, the Atlantic on the right, the air like warm blue milk:


Photographs are their own entities, only loosely connected to our actual memories of the events they capture. When I look at the rest of my Morocco photos, I can’t remember which ones I took, which ones Brandon took. Therefore, I can’t easily discern which are my memories, which are his. (He really is an amazing photographer, so I suppose I should be able to tell the difference). I also wouldn’t recall many of these images—these people, these places—if they weren’t right there, wonderfully staring back at me:






When I look at this documentary evidence of what I’ve witnessed in my past life, it’s all perfection: new experiences, places, people, things. Indeed, these images conjure a narrative awash in archetypal, coming-of-age simplicity: an entirely romanticized brand of youth and exploration, 100% happiness and light. But in spite of the fun I had tripping around Morocco, at that point in my life I was incredibly depressed: just out of a painful breakup, uncertain about my career prospects, enamored with the idea of taking anti-depressants (I even had a full month’s supply tucked away in my backpack). In other words, these photos are not totally connected to my memories; looking at them years later, they simply create new, idealized memories.

So, ultimately, these photos tell a different story—about the unreliability of memory, about the inability of photographs to help us recapture our (“real”) memories, and (indeed) about the way photographs manipulate us into fabricating new ones.

As a result, all of this also hints at the relationship between nostalgia and photography, specifically the way we manufacture nostalgia about our pasts through this tenuous connection between memory and captured images. Murray J. Siskind, my favorite character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, argues that nostalgia is merely “a product of dissatisfaction and rage … a settling of grievances between the past and present.” I wonder about the psychological components of my own nostalgia, the willful denial that paints my memories in rosy hues; the current dissatisfaction that makes me wish for a bygone past, a past that has been reconstructed to seem more appealing than my present. DeLillo (channeling Ernest Becker) might argue that it’s the fear of aging and death that causes me to regress into my memories, to construct romanticized versions of my youth in order to deny the fact of my own inevitable death.

As depressing as that sounds, I agree.

I haven’t taken many photos lately, and I’ve been wondering if I should start taking more. But if looking at old photos relates to a nostalgia for the past, how about taking photos? Is that a type of nostalgia for the present? Or is the act of photographing a projection into the future, when surely I’ll be nostalgic for what’s happening to me right now?

Alas, it’s all so complicated. Perhaps I should just pick up my camera and see what happens…

5 responses to “If memory serves…”

  1. great to have a new post from you, jeremy. nice pictures.

    i think photos are a better way than religion to rationalize death.


  2. G-Lock says:

    Jeremy –

    A few thoughts on your excellent post:

    1. You were super skinny back in the day. Dr. Cedric is somewhere swooning over your girth, or lack thereof.

    2. Your friend momentarily resembled Henry Rollins. At least to me.

    3. Those last few pictures are positively Time/Life-worthy.

    4. Photos are supposed to jog memory, but too often I rely on them exclusively to recall an event or time. If I don’t have a photograph of something, it is so hard to conjure the sense of “being there” ever again. At a talk by an author that I attended last night, it was said that humans are endowed with a self-defense mechanism in the brain that drops a curtain on the past to help shield us from painful times. The trade-off, of course, is that we might lose the memories of invaluably life-affirming events. So, while looking at a static photograph might be like putting blinders on, such that the memory is “jogged” to only that particular time or space captured (“Remember that room?”,”Oh, wow, look at her outfit!”, “Wait, did I really snort all that?”), at least it’s not gone forever, lost to the ether.

    5. I need to get a digital camera – stat!

  3. Gary Hoffman says:

    Jermy I enjoyed seeing parts of your past and reading youir commentary about it via photos. I used to take photos just as a way of doing something artistic but that was too much work so then I just took them to capture parts of my past and remember them as you do, but I like to think without any nostalgia involved. For one thing, I always keep in mind that most moments in life have lights and darks: I’m happy in this photo in the Tetons but remember the day before was hell getting there, Glynis and I are smiling in this picture but a few moments before we were complaining about family. I’m big into Keat’s negative capability, holding opposites in mind at the same time (you’ve even seen me do this with prosaic department items) but mostly I focus on the positive, which sometimes even includes the comically grotesque. It works as long as your body’s health doesn’t sour and distract one from the intellectual self.

  4. Stella says:

    I feel very ambivalent about photographs. I love them, but rarely take them. I feel frustrated that my memories get shaped by the moments that were captured and I lose the ones that are not. I don’t like it when the taking of photographs dominates an event, shaping the memories before they spontaneously evolved.

  5. ssw says:

    I totally agree Stella, although photos can bring up a lot more for me than just what shows in the picture. At times ( it tends to be events like Christmas or big trips) I try to step back and forth between being in the moment and capturing what’s happening. Lately it just feels so much more important to focus on experiencing whatever I’m doing rather than documenting it.

    A few other reactions: change is such a constant. photos can’t keep up with the complexity–or I can’t keep up with them. They’re just one type of reflection of who we once were at a particular time, for good or bad. It’s good to have other measures (journals, friends/family) to help us assess occasionally where we are in life and who we want to become, although ultimately they’re all subjective. Tthe bottom line is that the best way I know of to stave off death and fear of aging (ehem, among other life pursuits) is to engage honestly with yourself about who you want to be and work on getting there, and to make peace with what you can’t control/change.

    Jeremy, this was a fantastic post. you are a beautiful writer.