Are photographs memories? Often you will read they are. But isn’t that the marketing department trying to make us buy more gear? Or is that too cynical?

Photos aren’t memories, but for sure they can help us remember precious moments. They can help rejuvinate the memory of loved ones, special places or events. But pitching photos only as memories might be selling things short.

Whenever I read the line that photos are memories, my first thought is the most famous work of René Magritte:

It’s an image of a pipe, not a pipe.
A photo of your grandmother is not your grandmother. A photo of the Eiffel tower is not the Eiffel tower. Neither is a photo the memories you may have. It’s a photo.

And if somebody else made the photo, in many ways, it really just is a photo. It may resonate with you, it may bring back thoughts and emotions. The photo may trigger that, yet there is a certain distance between the photo and your memories.

But things seem to get more complicated when you are the maker of the photo.

The moment

When you make photos, there is often a meaning to the exact moment you decide to press the shutter. That is, assuming you’re not relying on ‘spray and pray’-approach filling your memory card rapidly, at more than 5 frames per second.

Whatever it is, something convinced you to make that photo in that moment. And when the photo comes out well, there is and remains something of a connection between that moment and that photo. An emotion, a sense of importance, a moment where things align to your inner eye. One could say a decisive moment. The photo gets a personal value.

It taints your ability to judge your own photos, but at the same time, it does give you that maximum trigger of your memories. Holiday photos are most dear to whoever made them, because it’s the photographer’s impressions and emotions that made it into the photo. As a photographer, you don’t really need to see yourself in a photo. You remember you visited that place, because you made that photo.

One of my first photos, and very much a holiday snap. School trip to Rome, 1990, shot with a disposable camera

So many moments

The above rings all true for me, and yet also not at all true.

If it was 30 or 40 years ago, for most hobbyist photographers, there would be a lot of truth to it. Photos were expensive and reserved for special occassions. But it’s not 30 years ago. And nowadays, making a photo is a far more casual thing, not all that significant for a moment or occassion. Yes, a lot of photos are still made to capture a moment, and hence, serve as a trigger for the associated memories. But the ease and frequency reduces that value. Not every moment is equally memorable. Looking on social media and such, it also strikes me that most of these photos are extremely similar. So they don’t seem to specifically recall one moment, but rather “a type of moment”.

You might wonder if making these photos, and sharing them, hasn’t become more a sort of habit, rather than those photos being the memories we say they are. It has become something to do, without wondering why.

In addition, the more ‘serious’ photographers (amateur or pro) don’t necessarily make photos to capture a specific moment. The roles an image may play can be a lot of different ones. Documentary photos try to tell a story, landscape photos try to show nature at its best, street photos show the particularities of urban life, and so on. A lot of portraits are made because you need them for official documents, not to remember how someone looked. And many photos are made just to be aesthetically pleasing images. They aim to be a photo, just that: a photo.

No memories involved, no emotions triggered. Just trying to make it look nice. Nijmegen, 2021

Why would I care?

How does this matter to the average person interested in photos? Maybe not at all. Yet, I still see courses, tutorials, workshops and so on all trying to capitalise on that mantra of “capturing memories”, and how improving your photography enables you to better achieve that.

And it’s not what these courses are doing. A workshop or course may make you better at making photos. Period. Memories may or may not play a role in that, but the qualities of the photos (in terms of craft and art) often do not alter the memory or the ease with which the memory is brought up. How often does it happen that people react most fondly to a not-so-good photo, just because it resonates best with their recollection of the event? I have no data, but I’m willing to bet it’s very often.

The actual question that lurks behind is more interesting: why are you making that photo? What do you try to achieve with it? What drives you? Memories can play a very significant role, no doubt. But it can also be a registration of events you don’t feel particularly strong about, or just a quest for a good looking image. Thinking about what drives your photography isn’t wasted time, even if the answer may be vague.

But be very clear: you’re making photos, not memories.

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