Photography & Memory
On the 6th of November 2014, Karran Sahadeo gave a talk at
the Moray House Trust in Georgetown, Guyana about how our memories are effected
by the camera and other gadgets. Sahadeo retraces the genesis of his artistic practice
which includes photography and installation to help us understand how his memory is
effected by the photographs he takes and re-creates. He then moves on to explain the
tensions he faced after returning to Guyana after 24 years including how his memory
of the country was challenged by the scenes he began to photograph.
Below is the transcript.
I recently read an article that equated taking pictures for social media applications such as Instagram to the idea of anticipated memory. What this essentially means is that when we take an image to share and filter, we are choosing how10we want to remember this moment, and thus affecting the way we will eventually look back on this instance. But I believe the big question here is: Do we even have an original memory of these events that is in danger of being altered by filters and faux nostalgia? Every two minutes more photographs are taken than were taken in the entire 19th century; the period in which photography’s original boom occurred. Studies have shown that to truly remember something, we need to experience it. Even basic memory enhancements techniques encourage you to focus on the details to remember a moment. But how are we supposed to be genuinely in a moment if we are staring at it through a 5 inch screen?
The camera has essentially become a substitute for memory, and with a seemingly unlimited amount of storage space, it even mimics our natural mnemic system’s ability to collect data. But it has one major advantage over our process of remembering; as time moves forward our memories begin to alter and lose detail while photographs stay the exact same as the day we pressed the shutter release. With photography’s inherent ability to tell the truth, it seems like our memories do not stand a chance.
My memory has been the centre of my artistic practice for a few years now and as an Instagram user who takes spontaneous images of everyday life, I was intrigued about how these seemingly thoughtless snapshots of my food, with filters which resemble film that were developed before I was born would have any meaning to me in the future. What significance was there in a cropped image of the tea I drank...
or the pizza I ate...
even the delicious fruit I made even more delicious albeit a lot less healthy?
To answer this question, I had to first understand what I gain from the photographs that I take where memory is the intentional referent.
This photograph is one in a series in which I, the photographer, took on the role of the director and more controversially, the biographer. This image was taken following a particularly traumatic period of my life and my intention was to document the people involved. My partner at the time, pictured here, confided in me how difficult it was and how anxious she felt being home alone. She described jumping every time she heard a noise and how reluctant she felt to only cook for herself. I felt guilty. All of these events happened because I was not there. I was in the hospital. The more I spoke to people, the more guilt I felt and I wanted to understand what they went through. I used my loved ones in the photographs as actors to play the role of themselves in my interpretation of their memory. In this case my partner was a willing participant, but in some other photographs, that was not the case.
At the time, my family lived an ocean away from me and were kept completely in the dark
about my illness and the trauma I was facing. But that did not stop the weekly video calls
in which they would update me with what I was missing in New Jersey and I would lie,
telling them how every thing was perfect. They did not know they were in this photograph.
And I still do not think they know that their likeness was used in a photograph which was
publicly exhibited. But that did not stop me from reinterpreting and creating a memory on
their behalf. Much like the previous photograph, this image is a complete work of fiction,
but when displayed, I present them as factual, as a document.
They are not that far off from documentation. Take for example this photograph of the hallway cluttered with junk and mail. This was an unknowing collaboration with the postman from the Royal Mail. Just by doing his job he was unwittingly being an active participant in this photograph. It is this line I straddle in my photography; the distinction between reality and fiction are pushed and blurred to the point that I, myself, may not truly remember which is which. Earlier, I called myself a director of these photographs. This is because they are heavily inspired by the cinema as evidenced by the aesthetics; the heavily dramatic lighting, the deep contrast and the hidden elements of a story... a story in which the audience is meant to piece together.
The concept of memory in my photography evolved when I returned to Guyana earlier this year. No longer was I aiming to make sense of a time period using other people’s recollection. I now felt a tension coming from within. I left Guyana when I was 4 years old and as you would suspect, I do not have much of an impression of when I lived here. My understanding of Guyana is that of someone who has lived outside its borders for the majority of their life. And the photographs I began to take became representations of the tension between Guyanese t raditions as i knew them; primarily first hand as a part of an expatriated family, and the traditions as they exist within Guyana. I was presented with a setting that was much different that one the four year old boy left behind some 24 years ago. It was full of relics from the past muddled with technologies of the present.
As you probably have noticed already, the aesthetic quality of these photographs are very similar to the previous ones, and that is no mistake. They live within the same realm; the realm of cinema, documentation, biography, fiction... Some of these photographs are fully staged, some partially, while others have no staged elements what so ever. But they are all treated the same. Neither is less authentic than the previous. This photograph shows the act of burning to clear a domestic area, an idea that was foreign to me, but what captivated me was the almost ceremonious carrying out of burning rubbish. For some it is a nightly tradition.
There was also fire that I knew, fire from a tradition that changes very little no matter which part of the world you are in. This was the first Diwali I took part in since returning to Guyana and it was exactly as I remembered. I accompanied my cousin as he observed it with his family. And it was no different than when I was a little boy; waking up to the vermicelli cake that my mother had made earlier that morning, waiting all day in anticipation to light the sparklers that were inconveniently placed out of my reach, and accompanying my mother as she carefully placed lit diyas around the house, both inside and outside. The noise was much louder than I remembered, but the emotion was still there... the nostalgia was clear.
As we know, nostalgia is the romanticism of memory. It is not intentional and it is often completely outside of our control. There is a term in photography called the punctum. Conceptualised by Roland Barthes, a theorist and philosopher, the punctum is a detail from the image that unbeknownst to the viewer, jumps out, latches on and creates a direct relationship between them and the photograph. The more I gaze at this scene of the man looking out onto the ocean, the more I feel transferred into his position. I know this feeling well as I am sure many of you here do and it does not take long for me to feel the subtle breeze blowing along my skin... to get completely lost in my own thoughts. The punctum by very definition is subjective, so it may not be universally felt, but when it is, you will know, because it transforms you.
This is the seawall view from the village of Uitvlugt which is located on the West Coast. Across the body of water is Leguan. Leguan is the island my mother grew up on and Uitvlugt is the village my father did. And it is where I currently live. There is a strange energy emanating from this calm, post sunset scene. It is almost as if I am conflicted with enjoying its beauty just as I am conflicted with this village in itself. Uitvlugt is the place I spent the first four years of my life. It is currently the home of some extended family I see on a daily basis and even more family that I do not know of and probably never will. For all intents and purposes this village is the exact same as I left it; the same people still live in the same houses, the same shops still sell the same snacks, and even the same trees still hang over the same old wooden fences with their fruits at arm’s length. I have a faint memory of walking on this land when the tide used to go out for what seemed like miles, with every step I took, I sank deeper into the soften earth. I asked my uncle, who lives just meters away from this location if the water still went out that far. He told me it has been years since he saw that.
One of the most intriguing aspect of returning to Guyana is to observe religion and cultures as they are practiced by my extended family versus how my immediate family observed them. Just up the road from where I live is my uncle’s home and it is where I often spend my weekends. It is there I regularly hear stories of what it was like actually growing up in the village; from poverty to politics and every thing in between. And now that life is comfortable and secure, I get lessons on what actually matters, often with not so subtle hints on who to vote for. But what I find absolutely remarkable about my uncle’s generation is the modesty. According to him, as long as you have your family, your property, and you religion, everything else in life is just a bonus.
It is almost impossible to take a photograph in Guyana without having some aspects of water included. I cross the Demerara every morning on the way to work and no matter how many times I take the speed boats, the journey is seldom the same. Whether it is trying not to trip over yourself while entering the boat or having the engines randomly cut off in the middle of the crossing, then sitting patiently as everybody stares and begin yelling at the captain. I enjoy the speed boats. It is one of the few places I can depend on the prices being the exact same every time. As you may have guessed, I have overpaid for everything from minibuses to groceries because of this accent. It took a couple of times to figure out why the prices of bananas seemed to change every day.
I feel this photograph is emblematic of my experiences returning to Guyana and adjusting
to day to day life. It shows the tensions between what I felt internally and what was externally
displayed. It was originally taken to accompany the series we saw at the beginning of this
presentation with emphasis placed on technological dependence and using technology as a
placeholder for the people and relationships we keep. But even though this image was carefully
planned and staged, it is probably the most authentic photograph I have shown tonight. It
demonstrates my disconnect from reality why implying a refusal of acceptance. I took this
photograph shortly after returning and I was conflicted. I still am. This is the reason why my
response changes every time I am asked how long I plan on staying in Guyana. I am trapped
between ideal moments from the past, conflicting moments from the present, and an unsure
expectation for the future. These photographs I have presented to you today, both staged and
not staged, were conceptualised to serve a particular purpose. And that purpose is to challenge
the reliability of our memories. How, as time moves forward, we forget the specifics and create
an idealised version, a factually incorrect recollection, of our lives.
However, with that said, I sometimes find myself drifting off and as I slip outside of consciousness, the memories I see are not the ones I spent hours recreating and photographing. It is not the moments that defined myself in any way. Its the images I spent just seconds capturing. The images of me waking up early to make a treat for someone special.
Its me finding the one place in London that serves up an authentic New York City slice.
Its me holding on to the moments that made me feel like everything will be just fine.