Counterfeiting Happiness: Photography, Identity and the Betrayal of Memory

This is an abridged version of the original paper presented at the SHOT program of exhibitions and forums in September/October 1992, and subsequently published by the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Australia.

I often think of my grand mother during the last few years of her life, when she was gradually losing her memory. I would visit her in Adelaide, where she lived with my grandfather, and watch with absolute despair every time he entered the room. My grandmother would again greet him with the same smile, and in the same voice invite him to sit down and have a cup of tea, and then ask him who he was. She was slowly also forgetting who she was. Perhaps you have to begin to loose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing. We no longer live an identity. Memory has become the means by which we posses identity.

One of the most precious things that we have in a marriage, in a family, in a friendship, is a shared collective memory. Just think of those moments when we gently resurrect that collective memory. Maybe it’s at night lying beside your lover, waiting for sleep to overtake, whispering and giggling, interjecting, trading in secrets, and restating the dreams of our youth.

This is also how I think of our potential relationship with photography. One of the most precious things about photography is that through it we can establish a shared, collective memory with ourselves. It places us outside of ourselves and our memory in much the same way that we are outside of, but a part of our lover’s memory. Photographs can glimpse intimacies and reflect facts beyond our recollection. Photographs if we allow them, can trade in confidences about ourselves, much as one’s thoughts can trade in revelations about the rest of the world.

As soon as photographs show us the world we think we know, it instantly becomes the world we remember. Think of those memories where what is remembered, and hence what is understood about the past, the world you once lived in, is what’s preserved in a photo album. The memory of that moment has become a memory circumscribed by the photograph of it. And even if the photograph no longer exists, the memory of the photograph often still dominates our memory of the event, our understanding of that moment. They carry our identity into the present in a way that we can recognize. Maybe you have also had a similar experience, accidentally coming across a well remembered but long lost image from your past. Perhaps you came across it browsing through a friend’s photo album, or you discovered it as a place mark in a misplaced book. This image, long lost from our remembered past, only now beheld by eyes gazing back from the present, suddenly reveals all those things our memory has carried for so long, but have been essentially unavailable to us. We see what we remember through the photograph, but we also discover those things we have forgotten.

In a sense we haven’t forgotten anything. We carry with us what we carry, and that is the totality of our union with the past. We either didn’t know such things at the time, or we knew them but other competing interests pushed our understanding of them into the background. Our identity at the time simply required a different hierarchy of memories. But now, once again in the presence of that long lost snap shot, that conduit into our memories, our knowledge can be revisited, reordered, summarized and considered.

The photograph becomes the site of such identification. It remains the cursor on our understanding of what it means to remember that I am who I have been.

Just the other day at my son’s school, all the children were asked to bring along a photograph of themself as a baby. This was all done in a charming sort of way. The idea was to help these five year olds understand themselves being part of a chain of identity growing from the past into the future. It also gets them interested in thinking about time as a continuum, joining the past to the present; the concept of life being composed of series of discrete moments, that can be catalogued and explained. This is harmless enough I guess, all part of one’s socialization into our culture’s common-sense. But what really amazed me was how nondescript most of these images were. For example, many had been taken from a great distance, so that all you could see was this small bundle swaddled up on a bed or in a pram. Nothing was distinct or individual about them. Yet these are going to be among our children’s earliest memories of themselves remembering. That is, them having an identity that extends across time.

If what we do, and why we do it has something to do with who we are, and if who we are has something to do with our identity, then I can understand us being interested in it. That’s the sort of thing that interests me about this question of identity, and is what really interests me about photography. We are who we picture ourselves to be, who we find ourselves to be, without really understanding why. We photograph those things in the world that matter most to us, or at least represent back to us that which most matters, even though we may not consciously understand that’s what we are doing. This is why photography can be such a good companion; a silent guide through this fable of life, this remembered identity.

For what constitutes identity, and where it is located, ultimately remain much the same thing. I often think about the autopsy my father and I endured, together alone, forever separated. I wonder where he is now? I’m sure the pathologist who carefully dissected his body didn’t find him. There on the slab was the site of my father; his body, his brain, the whole organism that had nurtured his being, exposed for all to see. But where is he now? He is in those laughing memories and cherished snapshots. He is in the trees he planted and the books he read. He remains in me, and my mother, in those severed relationships and the cooling memories of long lost encounters.

We live somewhere between the life that is ours, and the life of the bereaved. We haunt moments that can never be held. This is the slippery, silvered, evasive, mysterious identity of identity. These photographs, our memories; its mystery is what keeps us alive.

As always, this work is dedicated to Anna and Andrey.

Copyright Les Walkling 1992