Images, as Jean Baudrillard (2006, p.5) once said, can have a “murderous power”. Images can be “murderers of the real, murderers of their own model”. Yet images have been an integral part of human life since time immemorial. From modest cave drawings to family snapshots and the latest glitzy billboards or the illustrations that are a taken-for-granted part of any respectable newspaper or magazine, images are part and parcel of our lives.
Baudrillard (2006, p.10) claims: “We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end. Because finally we have never believed in them”. While the first part of that dictum appears relatively easy to accept, the second part sounds a little harsher than it may have intended, or certainly than some might perceive it to be. Although it could be argued that reassurance implies a sense of belief, Baudrillard seems to infer that without any visible past, continuum or myth of origin, our belief in them would be totally null; that without their visible aspect, they would simply not exist. On closer inspection, it seems more likely that the visible part confirms and validates our belief in our myths of origin, past and continuum. Instead of being the cause for such beliefs, they corroborate them, substantiate them, making our beliefs authentic and “real”, where “real”, in this particular case, stands for “existent or related to actual existence” (Collins English Dictionary, p.1273), as opposed to “imaginary”.
Through their powerful capacity to trigger memory, images are one of our most important links to the past, and crucial for our psychological balance as vital tools in any healing process. Although memory, as an entity by itself, is more often that not fragmentary, its “fragments” can be essential links to solving the puzzle of a traumatic event that may have become blurred for a number of reasons. In some such cases, recovering parts of our past through the recollection of specific events may be critical for the “balance” of our present. Images can be timeless channels of memory and their existence is like a key that can unlock doors stubbornly shut in our past.
When between March 2005 and January 2008, nine political assassinations shook Lebanon, adding another mysterious chapter to the country’s endless struggle with war and its aftermath, the events occurred, were photographed, mediated, consumed and archived, before they settled in people’s minds like dust. The stubbornly similar cycle of life and tragedy, waltzing its immutable waltz once more. Time stopped for those affected, the rest simply got on with their lives, as if nothing had happened. Perhaps no one wanted to remember. While researching the archives of one of the leading Lebanese newspapers that covered said events, a singular fact was immediately striking: one could read all the information published in relation to each assassination on the date it occurred, but for one element, blatantly missing from the records: the details in the photographs. The irony of the metaphor was staggering. The archived photographs mirror the events they depict by the demand for visual scrutiny they impose on their viewer. Like the investigators who came looking for clues in vain after each blast, on close inspection of the images, the viewer is faced with meaningless graphic abstractions. From a distance, the images gain a semblance of intelligible information, but never enough to make out the fine details. Seeing becomes a synonym for concealing.
The elusiveness of the archival photograph, in this case, acts not only as a metaphor for the human mind in its constant struggle to remember and to forget, but also as a catalyst for questioning the bearer of the responsibility for said events and the concealment of the truth. The puzzle is exacerbated by the multiple interpretations inflicted upon it by the media in the early stages and by the public on the other hand. But something interesting occurred when showing the enlarged hazy archival images to a number of people. Despite the pronounced lack of details, many people were able to recognise the separate spaces where the explosions took place, some could even identify more specific details. A process of reviving one’s memory with the mass mediated images that oversaturated our minds seemed to take place, with diverse results depending on personal history, memory and experience.
What may be an exercise for the mind and memory becomes a challenge for the photographic medium: questioning its role and highlighting its weakness when tackling atrocities. Karen Cross and Julia Peck (2010) observed how “through its association with mass culture, photography has been viewed as a process that results in the devastation of memory”, but as Annette Kuhn and Kirsten Emika McAllister (2006, p.5) asserted in Locating Memory: Photography Acts, “if memories are one individual’s, their associations extend far beyond the personal. They spread into an extended network of meanings that bring together the personal with the familiar, the cultural, the social, the historical”. To that list, one might add the unconscious and ask: precisely what kinds of images trigger memories? Are all images mnemonic in one way or another and in what way does the mnemonic process brought on by an image change according to personal, social, cultural and historical differences?
This project is looking mainly at the role and importance of images in triggering memory both on a personal and collective level, and is considering both the conscious and unconscious side of memory as well as the role of the archive in preserving visual history. It seeks to show that all images have the capacity to prompt memory to different extents, and that where the same image might provoke different memories in separate individuals, certain images trigger collective memories in large groups of people.