get it? forget it?
I remember reading a quote from Susan Sontag which said that the most prolific photographers are usually people with a bad memory. Surprisingly, I don’t remember the context of the quote but I recall it being quite comforting at the time. Being forgetful sucks. As a teenager, I read a book by E.M. Remarque called All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s a striking story on the experience of the First World War, and I only realised that I’d already read it before when I got to a scene where the soldiers were sitting inside a bunch of outdoor toilets situated in a circle. Each one of the soldiers could see all the others taking a shit. From the whole book, that was the only part that stuck with me. My memory’s shit - I’ll repeatedly repeat stories I’ve already repeated, and get all excited about it as if I was telling them for the very first time. Shockingly, I’m the only ecstatic one at the table.
I initially thought Sontag was trying to say that people who’re afraid of losing a particular memory are more likely to take photographs. You know, the people who take pictures in order to remind themselves of the bygones later on in their lives. Like my mom who will take ten photos of me blowing off the candles on my birthday cake. I can understand the sentimental value of those pictures, but for a while, I actually thought that was the very reason why I love walking around and taking photos. So that I don’t have to feel like I did nothing all year. So that I could feel better about myself, and be able look back and have a proof that I was in some foreign city and that I diligently roamed its streets and understood its culture. It took me a while to be honest with myself and acknowledge the fact that I just really don’t care enough for this to be the real reason. I mean, it feels good and all that, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s not really what excites me about it. It’s less spirited than that.
If you have a bad memory like myself, you’ll be able to get repeatedly lost in places you’ve visited numerous times before. Every time I finally find my way around, it feels a bit like I’ve just discovered a piece of the New World. Put me in Groundhog Day* instead of Bill Murray and I’ll never get bored. I mean, sometimes I will hate it, other times I’ll feel indifferent, or I might even love it, put it will never feel the same. It’s similar with photography - but me in a big enough city, let me walk through different streets to a point that I’ll forget where I started in the first place, and you’ll see me do the same thing the next day. I’ll get excited about things that have probably always been there. I just won’t remember them. In general, that kind of forgetting made my life a little more complicated than I thought it would be. But when it comes down to taking photos and getting excited about the trivia of daily life, the good kind of memory seems to be the bad one. In many ways, I’m actually quite grateful for remembering so little. And in case I do want to remind myself of the past, the photographs are still there. The documentary characteristic of the medium is just not the reason why I engage with it. It is simply the excitement of the moment coupled with the curiosity of how the camera translates that particular instant.
* Just to find the name of the film, I had to google “flowers” only to find out it doesn’t give me the film “that guy” played in. So I went for “Coffee and Cigarettes” to find out it was Bill Murray. His filmography was just a few clicks away - I’m glad there was a picture next to the film title, I probably wouldn’t know which one it was otherwise.