Memory and Photography: are we Instagramming our lives away?

When confronted with a decline in user-generated posts, as a younger crowd moved onto more visual platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram, Facebook launched ‘On This Day’. The feature allows users to scroll through old posts, photos, likes or friendships, with the intent of encouraging people to continue sharing their own intimate and collective experiences. The first-ever digital natives have shown a special relationship with the past, present across media channels both in the on and offline worlds, and Facebook was only one more enterprise that knew very well how to profit from it.

After the huge success of apps like Timehop, that gathered more than 6 million followers, or hashtags such as #tbt, nostalgia seems to be right on trend for Millennials. But how does one read this attachment to simpler times from a generation that has been raised in the midst of a technological revolution? How will we remember our lives now that they have been thoroughly documented on the internet?

And in what way does this ubiquitous connectivity and the ever-flowing stream of information affect our perception of self, our memories and our relation with time? 

The desire to document one’s life, far from being a new concept, has been around since even before the daguerreotype and yet, we have definitely been witnessing major changes in the way we do document our existence, by rethinking how we represent ourselves from further and further from the days of Louis Daguerre, the family portraits of the late 1800s or the personal photography enabled by the mass commodification of the portable film camera in the late twentieth century.

As Jose Van Djick explores in “Digital Photography: Communication, Identity, Memory”, photography was initially a social practice centred around families who wanted to capture their experiences for future reference or communal reminiscing. In this sense, analogue photography was what the author considers primarily a means for autobiographical remembering, for “verifying life as it was” as, through taking pictures, one articulated their connections to different groups and emphasized ritualized moments of ageing, structuring not just family life and but also one’s notion of belonging.

The idea is that, in the past two decades, self-presentation, rather than family representation is now the primary function of photographs. And in that sense, the technological evolution that gave us digital cameras, and the convenience it brought with, has transformed the way we use photography from being a tool for recalling the past, to an instrument for communication, experience and formation of identity.

However, this shift is not a direct consequence from technological development, but rather a part of a larger cultural transformation that puts the individual at the centre of the experience and focuses on personhood, in detriment of family values. Instead of being tied to memory and moments of commemoration, cameras are being used less for remembrance and more for connecting and affirming one’s personal expression. 

This tendency to use personal photography and the internet as a means of communication is something social networks and other media platforms are very well aware of and, quoting Mark Zuckerberg because people are not only “keeping up with their friends and family, but also building an image and identity for themselves” by choosing to connect with the audience that they intended to connect to.

Memory and Digital Photography

 What is our need to photograph and share every moment on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat doing to our memories? To what extent does recording our lives on camera shape what we remember? And more than that, how does the inherent curation and manipulation our images go through affect the image of our past and present self?

The digital age and the emergence of smartphones with built-in cameras have empowered individuals to engage in new performative rituals by instantly capturing and sharing experiences, rather than building up collections of moments for future reference, turning these devices into primary mediums of communication. This is fundamentally related to the way we choose to represent ourselves in the public sphere. What we eat, whom we see, the places we go, everything is documented and publicly available practically from birth and that curated image tells us not only whom we want to be but what we want to remember and it has an undeniable importance in an individual’s identity formation in today’s ever-connected society.

One can see in Roland Barthes this idea that photography connects memory and identity formation – as we tend to remodel our self-image to fit the pictures we take, meaning that we not only recall memories from photography but also produce and alter them from it. The concept of having one’s photograph taken is a field of forces that intersects our mental, idealised, photographed and public self-images.

However, despite being a more and more powerful means in the construction of one’s identity, photography hasn’t lost its initial recollection attribute – this function has, instead, reappeared transformed in the dissemination of these images that are shared over the internet and forever stored in the virtual space.

In her “On photography”, American writer, filmmaker and political activist Susan Sontag explains that needing “to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted” and ultimately, having an experience is synonym to photographing it. 

One can almost say that we now understand that every moment needs to be experienced as something to be reflected on later, and we have given ourselves the power and ability to design and alter how that moment will be perceived in the future.

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Upon the launch of their “On this day” feature, Facebook was confronted with a rather important question that makes it such a good example of the way digital photography has forever altered our relationship with the past: what if there are days, posts, friends, images we do not want to remember? How to algorithmically curate one’s memories and, mostly, do we still own these memories now that they are a part of the public sphere?

Do we have more or less control over our perceived images now that we are able to choose from hundreds of shots and make use of skills and tools available before solely to a handful? The manipulation of body image in advertising or enterprise-owned stock like pictures have for long been a part of the public imaginary, but the fact that software and tools once available to enterprises or professionals are now within reach of anyone with access to information means that we may be welcoming a normalization of manipulating our own past and heritage.

Photography has become more than a picture-perfect moment on a family’s scrapbook and more part of an algorithmically curated quasi digital memory album that came with a shift not only in the perception of our memories but of one’s self. As communication becomes more and more reliant on a visual language, the value of each individual photo decreases and the overall significance of communicating increases – a thousand photos may be worth a single word (Van Djick) and a lot of what we experience seems not to be considered worthy unless it is well shared and documented. 

Nobel Daniel Kahneman speaks of Generation Instagram as one that treats the present as if it is already a memory, the same way Barthes understood that we doctored our past from what we thought we were meant to look like, we are now doctoring our presents to fit the manipulated image of what we think we should be. And, as we culturally accept the proliferation of adulterated images, there is a shift in the significance of photography in the construction of our collective memories and a loss of control over the content that no longer belongs to ourselves.