Why archiving pictures takes so much energy, why pictures are more than just images and what pictures have in common with french madeleines?
January 2021 I have finished archiving all my digital images and I have often asked myself in the evenings why this work of looking at, organising, archiving and tagging is actually so exhausting.
I now have a total of 45,000 images in the archive, all keyworded and neatly filed in folders and subfolders. The work was very exhausting, but especially emotionally stressful and tiring. After this self-imposed project, I first fell into a big hole. This is often the case after long projects, but why was this work so particularly draining and exhausting?
View and process 45,000 images
It is quite clear. Looking at the pictures is exhausting work. And in the evening I asked myself, what am I actually doing with this very well sorted photo archive and why am I actually taking so much trouble with these pictorial memories? I often lay in bed at night after long hours of archiving pictures and thought about how my life is made up of these events, how the images of the events, people and places revived my memories, how they formed me anew, almost like a sculpture made of clay is created by a sculptor.
This quote is mainly about memories with which we have not yet reconciled. But I am completely at peace with my 45,000 individual photographic memories. But not completely. When filing all these pictures, tagging and keywording all these memories, events, places and moments, I felt a great exhaustion at the end of the work and realised how much energy remembering cost me.
Holidays where an argument ruined the day, friends whose faces I recognise but with whom I no longer have anything to do for many reasons. Mountains I couldn't climb because of a broken foot, hikes I had to end because I couldn't find accommodation and was alone, lonely and despondent, my temporary fear on my first and only Atlantic flight. I thought about the reasons for the mental and physical feat and then many emotions came up. At the same time, working with the pictures brought me great joy, filled me with happiness and satisfaction when I thought of all that I had experienced and achieved. But that also cost me energy and slowly wore me out.
What are memories?
Memories are the mental reliving of past experiences, writes Wikipedia. They are stored in our episodic memory and are composed of pictorial elements, cinematic scenes, sounds, smells, sounds and feelings. Memories are stored in compressed form and need to be reprocessed when activated. Memories can be almost photorealistic and very precise, but equally only vague and approximate.
In addition to episodic memory, there is also autobiographical memory, which stores episodes with great and overriding significance for us.
There is a lot of research into how memories are formed and why memories are often not as accurate as we think (see footnotes). The brain does not function like a hard drive or video camera that records events one-to-one. Information stored in the brain does not remain unchanged. A good example of this is the angler whose caught fish gets bigger and bigger every year the more he tells about his catch. And we ourselves know how much we like to make a mountain out of a molehill.
Memories that happen under strong emotions are often distorted and inaccurate.
Dipping Madeleines in Tea
There is one smell that I can still remember very well. It is the smell of our hallway and staircase in the Kluser Höhe in Wuppertal-Elberfeld. A mixture of floor polish, cleaning agents, coal dust and stored potatoes, perfume and long-worn coats.
A famous scene from Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time, the Madeleine Episode, has gone down in literary history. (For the german version: peter-matussek.de / http://www.peter-matussek.de/leh/s_18_material/s_18_m_07/proust_madelaine.pdf).
The scene is about Proust dipping a madeleine into his tea, and the taste, smell and consistency remind him in one fell swoop of his childhood. He is flooded with an unheard-of feeling of happiness, he becomes indifferent to his present life and suddenly realises why it is happening to him: It was the taste of the Madeleine of his childhood and all at once all the memories are there again, come to the surface once more.
It is a beautiful and significant passage of literary history and the author and novelist Edi Zollinger has analysed it wonderfully and traced it back to Ovid - it is well worth reading. (Edi Zollinger,Auf der Suche nach der Quelle - von Andersen bis Ovid, https://www.nzz.ch/articleEH1K7-1.60964)
Even the smallest things, delicate smells or certain sounds evoke whole cascades of memories in us. I felt this way last year when I sold my aunt's old bread machine and cranked it through again by hand. The squeak released quite amazing things in me. Breads, the smell of that particular country bread that only existed in that one VW T2 baker's van in the Sauerland, the sound of the tailgate slamming shut after opening to reveal a bouquet of smells that today's bakeries can no longer manage: properly malted fermented morning rolls, sultana slices, sourdough breads, square and round, pastries, croissants, pretzels and almond slices and so on.
These are just smells, tastes. But what happens when the memories call up all these processes in a tangible way, in form and colour, even photographically? Then there's quite a lot going on in the brain.
And that's probably what got me through, I think. The cascades of Staufen-containing RNPs in transiently transfected neurons along microtubules that triggered the photos in me. The, as one finds so numerous in Proust's novel, voluntary and involuntary memories, with their subsequent associations and sensory impressions and snippets of situations, overlaid with ordered to confused good and bad feelings, moods and blurred to crystal-clear carpets of smells and sounds.
One thing is certain. Nothing is certain.
The picture is not a picture
But the pictures/photos are. Aren't they? They are truth. They are reliable. Objective. No. They are my truth. They are extraordinarily subjective, and I thought they objectively depicted something, but they only/also depict my subjective view of a moment. But that's not quite true either. When I look at them, I can possibly feel again what I felt at the moment of taking the picture and experiencing it, but the same picture without me and my memory is nothing. In addition, every time I look at it, I add building blocks, feelings and new impressions, new subjective sensations. Perhaps supplemented by the comments of other viewers.
But the fact that my memories are just my memories, my subjective inaccurate hindsight of what happened, is impressively shown when one shows these photos to people who were present at certain moments or who were even photographed. "Look, this is a particularly beautiful picture of you!" "No, not at all, look how I'm looking there?" "But you were so pleased!" "No, I wasn't satisfied, I was just tired." It's like that with a lot of things. "Do you remember how beautiful it was on the Jenner?" "I had to get off the Jenner, I was dizzy!"
And likewise: someone else looks at a picture and feels: nothing or something completely different. This phenomenon should be familiar to anyone who once attended a slide show about a holiday trip. The pictures are simply of impossible quality, the people stand stiltedly in front of uninteresting photo motifs and one does not feel a trace of what the presenter's enthusiasm wants to convey to us while watching.
Why are these memories so important to me?
Life like a river
Perhaps because I can make contact with my past through the images? My autobiographical-episodic memory holds me together as a whole. I can erase parts of my memories, get back in touch with other parts, relive the happy and intense moments. As Wikipedia writes:
I ask myself: am I not currently filled with good feelings in the present? In fact, in these Corona times, the answer must be: No, I am not. I hardly experience anything. A delicious meal with the family, a games evening, a nice film. That's it. Nothing happens away from home. Zero. Nada. I don't go anywhere, I don't go out anywhere. There are no goals or anticipation because there is no end to the crisis yet.
Now I see how much these memories help me too. They help me to reassure myself of who I am. My memories are self-assurance through the knowledge of my own having become, as Katja Patzel-Matern writes. She says that by reconstructing my life, by sorting and linking my memories, I give my life a power that makes my life tangible for me, the collected events, places, times, people, feelings constitute me, they put me together.
How have I acted in the past, with whom have I interacted, whom have I hugged, kissed, with whom have I laughed or cried, where was I operated on, where did I walk from, what did I hike to, where and how did I eat, see, play, hear, etc.? My life story is me, it makes me individual. I have to find my role in society for myself, give a coherent consistent meaning to all my actions in the diverse social contexts themselves. This task has come to man more and more since the Renaissance and this requirement to define oneself continues to increase at a rapid pace. My memories not only give meaning to me as a person and to my self. They also give it meaning, which no longer automatically comes to me as a human being in modern society. This is all very subjective, just as my impressions, my many photos are. They are impressions, sure evidence of something I am no longer automatically sure of.
My memories are not static, they are not exact, they are subjective and in a constant state of flux on which I cannot always steer my own journey. All these images are the world in themselves, but through my memories they become more than just a past moment. The images help me to be more sure of myself and my past.
It's nice to have them and to be on the road with them.
A picture is not just a picture. It is charged with my subjective feelings when it was taken, when I experienced the moment it was taken and with all my feelings when I look at the image afterwards. Remembering is exhausting because it is more than just seeing something. And without our memories we are nothing.