Photography, embodiment, and memory

It’s a curious thing, but when you’re behind a camera, especially one where you have to put your eye close to the viewfinder to see the field of view, you sometimes forget to really look at things and take them in properly. It starts to feel like the camera will do the remembering for you.

There’s a photo of me when I was little, poking a twig between the wooden slats of a bridge. I think my body remembers standing on that bridge, bending over and carefully inserting the twig in the gap. But maybe my memory is overlaid by the photo.

When I got handfasted, one of the best bits of advice was to photograph it with your brain. As the pivotal moments went by, I tried to record them visually in memory. This is us leaping the broomstick, putting rings on each other’s fingers, the first dance, cutting the cake with a sword. But there are also photos of each of these moments which can easily overlay the more ephemeral memory that is stored in your brain.

One of the great things about taking pictures on a cellphone is that you don’t need to put the viewfinder right up to your eye, and the process of framing the scene is a lot quicker than with a large SLR (big camera with a lens, for the non-technical). The advent of digital cameras made photo editing and cropping much easier too; and you can try out umpteen different filters at the click of a button. This makes the photographer less like a cyborg and restores them to the social context.

You can also have a phone in your pocket and forget (more or less) that it’s there, whereas if you have a large chunky SLR, you don’t forget that it’s there, and walk around looking at the scene around you as a series of photographic compositions, instead of as a place or landscape in its own right.

I once went to the temple of Asklepios on the island of Kos, and the first time I went, I had my SLR camera with me, so I was looking at it as a series of photos. I went back a second time without the camera, and it was a completely different experience.

When I’ve visited sacred sites with a cellphone or digital camera in my pocket, I can put it out of my mind and focus on the atmosphere of the place, and stop framing it as a series of compositions.

Embodied photography

I’m currently doing a photo challenge on Instagram, with a word for each day, like tree, circle, water, divination, offering. The challenge is hosted by @covenofcrows on Instagram. If you would like to see my pictures, my Instagram account is @birdberrybooks.

On Saturday, we went for a walk at Mount Nemo, and I started looking for circles to take pictures of, which made me look at my surroundings in a different way; suddenly there were circles everywhere. We even made a circle out of twigs.

Sculptures by Walt Rickli.

Photography, used sparingly, can make us more aware of our surroundings, more creative; but it can also disconnect us from our bodies and our embodied memories.

It can also create community and connections, as we are offered little windows into each other’s lives, worlds, sacred spaces.

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