Memory, Documentary Photography and—Hopefully— Enlightenment

Mary Ellen Mark is one of America’s most renowned photographers. Her work centers on emotional proximity exposure of individuals on the fringes of society, similar to iconic Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. Her usage of film is irresistible—I am a real pushover for the dramatic effects and monumental appearance of silver gelatin prints (a method of black and white development) in comparison to standard digital prints.

Mark and DABI member and neuroscientist Daniel L. Schacter, Ph.D., recently discussed photography, documentation, and illusion during “The Photographer,” part of the Rubin Museum of Art’s 2013 ongoing Brainwave series. I was delighted to return to the museum where I gave tours during college to K-12 school groups and mentored a teen group as an Apprentice Museum Educator.

Michael palma for rma mary ellen mark-1-5(Credit: Michael Palma for The Rubin Museum of Art)

At the beginning of their conversation, Schacter  asked Mark if a photograph differs from the memory of the events and details surrounding its creation and of the people involved. Following her answer—that she lucidly remembers the circumstances and the people in her photographs—Schacter playfully engaged the audience in an experiment that challenged the faculties of human memory. He read a group of words that were closely associated with one another (and hunger inducing): “cookie,” “moist,” “cake,” etc. Asking the audience whether they heard the word “sweet,” almost everyone raised their hands. Needless to say, most of us were wrong (sigh). We had experienced a false memory, creating the memory of hearing the word because logically it seemed that Schacter should have said it. Mark called the exercise “a trick,” while the rest of us got a lesson in how easy it can be to manipulate the human mind. (To read more about false memory and a similar experience at a Brainwave event, read “The Impact of Memory on Filmaking” by Bill Glovin.)

Schacter explained other experiments that further demonstrate the commonness of false memory, including one by Steve Lindsay, a noted cognitive psychologist. College students were asked by their parents to recall a time when they and their friends were penalized for bringing a slime toy to school and placing it in the teacher’s desk. The experimental group was shown a class picture and the control group saw no photographs. As expected, more participants in the group shown the picture admitted to remembering the event, which never happened.

Mark was skeptical, feeling that the participants lied because they were eager to please. I was also doubtful, thinking that individuals shown pictures are more likely to agree that an event happens because of the documentation provided. Like most of the students, I would have felt more pressure to answer positively when confronted with evidence, albeit indirect. If a photograph couldn’t jog my memory, I’d feel really dumb.

During the Q&A, a woman in the audience remarked upon the story of a young man who fatally shot a man involved with his girlfriend and suffered through what Mark deemed a “horribly abusive” childhood. He had asked Mark, who had taken a photograph of him when he was a young boy, to send him pictures of his younger self to help explain to his fellow inmates why he was in prison. He strongly believes the photograph is straightforward and affecting for any audience, with a genuineness and persuasiveness that are essential features of documentary photography.

Mark summarized documentary photography as “the truth as one sees it—or the truth as the photographer sees it.” The honesty of the photographer’s depiction may differ from the reality dependent on interpretation or the contextual information that is accessible. But there may be some truth even in an imagined narrative. Viewers may extract the essential meaning from the image, even if the details aren’t correct. In a parallel fashion, Schacter believes false memories may be an expression of focusing more on core meaning than the details of an event or situation, rather than some cognitive lapse. Schacter also mentioned that areas of the brain responsible for the processing of memory and imagination largely overlap. Memory and imagination which construct truth, interact in ways neuroscientists are only beginning to comprehend, he pointed out.

Truth is often a complex ideal, the speakers agreed. An illusion or falsehood provoked by a documentary photograph contains truth; it may contain a cultural and social memory of a time and place that may be partially imagined but still means something to a large number of people. Even if the understanding of a photograph is dissimilar from the reality, the story contrived is most likely the story of someone, somewhere. The Rubin Museum showcases mandalas in Buddhist and Hindu “art,” which are pneumonic devices that present the viewer with a means to an end, a way to imagine oneself becoming the god enclosed within, working through the mazes of the mind and perceived reality to attain a perfect state—enlightenment. According to the Buddha, all reality is illusion; enlightenment is truth. When I reach enlightenment, I’ll let you know…

– Amanda Bastone

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