Research Activity

Summary of Initial Research

Search terms – oral history memory and place

Jo Spence explored ideas regarding personal memory – Beyond the Family Album

Suspended Conversations, Martha Langford

Recording Oral History: a guide for Humanities and Social Sciences, Valerie Raleigh Yow

Theatres of Memory Samuel, Raphael 306.0941 SAM 941 SAM 907.2 SAM

Place, writing and Voice  in Oral History

The Voice of the Past – Paul Thompson


Oral History and Photography (Palgrave Studie… (Hardcover)

by Alexander Freund, Alistair Thomson

…Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories… a photograph can best be understood not as an answer or an end to inquiry, but as an invitation to look more closely, and to ask questions. Phillip Gourevitch

“Familiar cliché ‘picture worth a thousand words.” From a Historical perspective worth much more – a piece of evidence to be interpreted, and evokes memory. As Bruce Save and Linda Shopes point out in the forward to the book ‘…photography and oral history invoke two senses – sight and sound…’ Together they enhance or understanding of events.

Common practice in oral history is to use photographs

Some have disputed the photographs role in aiding memory. Claiming that it actually serves the process of forgetting – Roland Barthes believed a photograph can do little more than confirm the existence of an object at some other time, in some other place.

Susan Sontag suggested that with the passage of time a photograph loses its specificity to become a purely aesthetic object open to multiple readings

Both Barthes and Sontag argued, because the photograph only records the surface appearance of what has been, and not the complex meanings associated with sensory experience, it cannot rightly be called a ‘memory image’.

Burnett, in his book How Images Think, reminds us that “images are both the outcome and progenitors of a vast and interconnected image-world.” In networked communication channels, the image or the photograph is not the communication itself, but rather, simultaneously, the prompt and the result of communication.

personal photograph shared on a social networking platform is not merely a externalization and a sharing of a personal experience or memory. Such a photo can now generate response: it can be “favorited” by others, it can generate responses or a discussion between the viewer and creator, it can be repurposed, reframed, reinterpreted and remixed. It can also be tagged by the creator or the users and thus becoming part of other individual’s memory or visual history.

Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody, shares with us the story of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. The parade is of no particular significance, it is a hippie summer parade. Few people outside those who attend it and photograph it would ever have heard about it. A quick search for the tag “mermaidparade” on the photo-sharing site Flickr returns over 45,337 images.

Shirky shares the example to demonstrate the kind of organizing possible with little to no overhead using sharing technologies like Flickr. He also uses this example to demonstrate how this simple act of sharing anchors and creates community.

Search terms – Cultural Memory

Cultural Memory and the Photograph

Jan Assmann defines cultural memory as the “outer dimension of human memory” (1992: 19), embracing two different concepts: “memory culture” (Erinnerungskultur) and “reference to the past”

Memory culture is the way a society ensures cultural continuity by preserving, with the help of cultural mnemonics, its collective knowledge from one generation to the next, rendering it possible for later generations to reconstruct their cultural identity.

References to the past, on the other hand, reassure the members of a society of their collective identity and supply them with an awareness of their unity and singularity in time and space—i.e. an historical consciousness—by creating a shared past.

Such ‘retrospective memory’ manifests itself during special occasions and sites special interest such as ancient monuments and other sites of memory-‘timemarks’

Cultural memory is not about giving testimony of past events, as accurately and truthful as possible, nor is it necessarily about ensuring cultural continuity: it is about making meaningful statements about the past in a given cultural context of the present. So cultural memory may extend to studies of other forms of memory in society

The concept of cultural memory thus corresponds to studies of other forms of memory in society, which have shown how even personal recollections by individuals, concerning the (fairly recent) past of their own lifetime, do not support the view that memory is a simple storage place for information which can be retrieved later on, but suggest that in memory the past is actively constructed depending on certain social and mental conditions. This cannot be better expressed than in the words of John Elsner (1994: 226):

“What matters … is not that [a particular account of the past] be correct by our standards or anyone else’s, but that it be convincing to the particular group of individuals … for whom it serves as an explanation of the world they inhabit. … [W]hat matters about any particular version of history is that it be meaningful to the collective subjectivities and self-identities of the specific group which it addresses. In other words, we are not concerned with ‘real facts’ or even a coherent methodology, but rather with the consensus of assumptions and prejudices shared by the historian … and his audience”.

CULTURAL MEMORIES: The Geographical Point of View – Meusburger, Peter; Heffernan, Michael; Wunder, Edgar (Eds.)

The revival of interest in collective cultural memories since the 1980s has been a genuinely global phenomenon. Cultural memories can be defined as the social constructions of the past that allow individuals and groups to orient themselves in time and space. The investigation of cultural memories has necessitated an interdisciplinary perspective, though geographical questions about the spaces, places, and landscapes of memory have acquired a special significance.

Photography and cultural memory: a methodological exploration ANNETTE KUHN – pdf.

Recent years have seen a flowering of research and scholarship on cultural memory across the humanities and social sciences. Among the many facets of this work is a quest to extend and deepen understanding of how personal memory operates in the cultural sphere: its distinguishing features; how, where and when it is produced; how people make use of it in their daily lives; how personal or individual memory connects with shared, public forms of memory; and ultimately, how memory figures in, and even shapes, the social body and social worlds. Personal and family photographs figure importantly in cultural memory, and memory work with photographs offers a particularly productive route to understanding the social and cultural aspects of memory. Beginning with a study of one photograph, this article develops and interrogates a set of interlocking memory work methods for investigating the forms and everyday uses of ‘ordinary photography’ and how these figure in the production of memory.

Useful References Provided in the pdf document and holdings at JMU:

Bal, Mieke, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer. 1999. Acts of memory: Cultural recall in the present.


On Photography, Susan Sontag 770.1 SON

Mediated Memories in the Digital Age Jose van Dijck – Synopsis

p.2 Talks about the significance of the ‘shoebox of memories.’ Variety of artefacts labelled Mediated Memories. Forms a formative part of our autobiographical and cultural identity. He puts such collections at the centre of theoretical and analytical inquiry. Identifies personal collections as building blocks of collective history and considers personal cultural memory  as “mediators’

Identifies two questions, what is personal cultural memory?

Recognises importance of media technologies to construction of personal remembrance which gives rise to the question: what is the nature of memory’s mediation?

Memories and media have been referred to metaphorically as reservoirs, holding past experiences and knowledge for future use.

p.3 Susan Bluck contends that autobiographical memory has 3 main functions: preserve a sense of being a coherent person over time, strengthen social bonds by sharing personal memories and use past experience to construct models to understand inner worlds of self and others.

Reminiscence allows people to reconstruct their lives through the looking glass of the present.

Further the author defines “personal cultural memory” as the acts and products of remembering in which individuals engage to make sense of their lives in relation to the lives of others and to their surroundings, situating themselves in time and place.

p.9 Collective Memory – most prominently theorised by Maurice Halbwach, one of his important observations is that collective memory is never the plain sum of individual remembrances: every personal memory is cemented in an idiosyncratic(personal) perspective, but these perspectives never culminate into a singular collective view. Collectivity not only evolves around events or shared experience it can also advance from objects or environments through which people feel connected spatially. Halbwachs specifically draws on auditory expressions, which people are exposed to from an early age and later serve as triggers.

p.12 Jan Assmann stresses the importance of memory objects but is suspicious of term “collective” memory. But acknowledges that objects form unique anchors of remembering process through which self and others become connected.

Mediation of Memory -the author acknowledges a trend, with cultural theorists, in mediated memories. The notion of that media and memory increasingly coil beyond distinction. But here there are internal contradictions, a paradox – media considered an aid to human memory, but also conceived as a threat to the purity of remembrance.

p.16 For the author media and memory are not separate entities – the first enhancing, corrupting, extending, replacing the second – but media invariably and inherently shape our personal memories, warranting the term mediation.

Annette Kuhn (Journey Through Reality) claims photographic images, “far from being transparent renderings of a pre-existing reality, embody coded references to, and even help construct realities.”

p.21 The author contends that “Mediated memories are the activities and objects we produce and appropriate by means of media technologies, for creating and re-creating a sense of past, present, and future of ourselves in relation to others.”

p.28 Memory Matters in the Digital Age – The author contends that term for “mediated memory objects,” such as pictures where people have a vested interest in them because they come to serve as material triggers of personal memories should be seen not only as prostheses of the mind. Mediated memories can be located neither strictly in the brain nor wholly outside in material culture but exist in both concurrently, for they are manifestations of a complex interaction between brain, material objects and the cultural matrix from which they arise.”

In the authors view memory objects also carry an “intense material preciousness” appreciated for their physical appearance – the faded worn photograph!

p.38 memories in the authors view “are not only embodied by the brain/mind and enabled by the object/technology, but they are also mediated by the sociocultural practices and forms through which they manifest themselves.”

Technologies of self are in and of themselves social and cultural tools; they are a means of reflection and self-representation as well as of communication.

p.41 Scientists and philosophers agree material environments influence the structure and contents of the mind; objects and technology inform memory instead of transmitting it. The author adds “ a third layer of sociocultural practices/forms.”

p. 98 Chapter 5 Pictures of Life, Living Pictures

Function and role of digital photography changed. Pre-digital age personal photography seen as a means for autobiographical remembering, and usual ended up as keepsakes in an album. Regarded as a reliable aid to recall and verifying life as it was, despite the fact that imagination and projection are inextricably bound up in the process of remembering. Also acknowledged is photography’s function as a tool for identity formation and as a means of communication.

The chapter explores how digital photography, in conjunction to a changing cognitive mindset and sociocultural transformations is reshaping personal cultural memory.

Several questions about the role of digital photography and rise of a network culture. First relates to digital manipulation and cognitive editing, the second is about sociocultural practices: photographs increasingly seem to be used as live communication instead of storing moments for later recall and the third is about the materiality and presentation of the object


Episodic memory is a category of long-term memory that involves the recollection of specific events, situations and experiences. Your first day of school, your first kiss, attending a friend’s birthday party and your brother’s graduation are all examples of episodic memories. In addition to your overall recall of the event itself, it also involves your memory of the location and time that the event occurred. Closely related to this is what researchers refer to as autobiographical memory, or your memories of your own personal life history. As you can imagine, episodic and autobiographical memories play an important role in your self identity.

Episodic memory represents our memory of experiences and specific events in time in a serial form, from which we can reconstruct the actual events that took place at any given point in our lives. It is the memory of autobiographical events (times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated. Individuals tend to see themselves as actors in these events, and the emotional charge and the entire context surrounding an event is usually part of the memory, not just the bare facts of the event itself.

Does place–the built environment with its connotative meanings–have any particular effect on a person’s identity? If so, what kind of effect, and by which mechanisms? Many factors–genetic, social, and cultural as well as the built environment–combine to shape identity. The physical built environment is just one among others. When attachment to place grows, we start to identify ourselves with these places Giuliani, 2003

Research project exploring the interaction between memory, identity and place. The approach to this area of research is develop an understanding of how our experience of identity and memory is also distributed and experienced in places and things around us in our built and lived environment.

Plays on the notion of Phenomenology

Landscape and Memory Ken Taylor

One of our deepest needs is for a sense of identity and belonging and a common denominator in this is human attachment to landscape and how we find identity in landscape and place. Landscape therefore is not simply what we see, but a way of seeing: we see it with our eye but interpret it with our mind and ascribe values to landscape for intangible – spiritual – reasons. Landscape can therefore be seen as a cultural construct in which our sense of place and memories inhere

What’s in a Photograph?

Personal digital photographs now play a more central function in personal and cultural identity formation. Rather than becoming scattered or lost in photo albums it finds prominence in the myriad file sharing applications that form part of our digitised network culture, aided by the accessibility of photo-cantered technologies

Burnett, in his book How Images Think, reminds us “images are both the outcome and progenitors of a vast and interconnected image-world.” In networked communication channels, the image or the photograph is not the communication itself, but rather, simultaneously, the prompt and the result of communication.

Clay Shirky shares the example of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade to help demonstrate the kind of organizing possibilities using sharing technologies like Flickr. He also uses this example to demonstrate how this simple act of sharing anchors and creates community.

In the web link to ‘Personal Digital Photography: from personal memory to public record’ the author further surmises Shirky’s observation that ‘these communities on Flickr are forming over a visual prompt, namely a personal photograph. The collection, collation, and linking of personal images en masse on a public forum like Flickr turns these individual images from personal memories to a public record.’

The central premise of this project is to begin the process of academic inquiry that sets out to explore the role and significance of the photograph as a means to both illustrate and prompt memory and further enquiry.

Photography and Memory – Adding voice to Digital Archives


Recent years has seen a flowering of research a scholarly activity around cultural memory and role that photographs play in the formation of identity and self. Susan Bluck contends that ‘autobiographical memory has 3 main functions: preserve a sense of being a coherent person over time, strengthen social bonds by sharing personal memories and use past experience to construct models to understand inner worlds of self and others.’

Personal and family photographs figure importantly in cultural memory, and memory work with photographs offers a particularly productive route to understanding the social and cultural aspects of memory.

But cultural memory is not about giving testimony of past events, as accurately and truthful as possible, nor is it necessarily about ensuring cultural continuity: it is about making meaningful statements about the past in a given cultural context of the present. This is an important consideration considering the involvement of an archive.

‘…Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories…a photograph can best be understood not as an answer or an end to inquiry, but as an invitation to look more closely, and to ask questions.’ Phillip Gourevitch

The opportunity to explore an archive and specifically a theme focused on the notion of a day trip to the seaside will hopefully allow opportunity to investigate the relationship between the image, in the context of an archive, and personal memory.

For an insight into the concept of memory and the contribution from photographic archives it’s helpful to understand memory and specifically memory studies which extends back to early 16th century beliefs that ‘memory could offer unmediated access to experience or to external reality’ (Radstone and Hodgkin 2005: p9)

Philosophical thinking has continued in this vein through the writings of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940)

Today there’s been an unprecedented explosion of memory related research which has been summarised by Joanne Gardie-Hansen’s adaptation from the work of Pierre Nora (2202)

  • Access to and criticism of official versions of history theory through reference to unofficial versions.
  • Recovery of repressed memories of communities.
  • Opening and creation of new archives for public scrutiny.
  • Explosion of genealogical research and family narratives.
  • Growth and interest in the heritage industry.

To this list I would add the following addition:

  • The expansion of online community driven services and willingness to engage with digital technologies and social media distribution platforms.

In her book Media and Memory, Garde-Hansen offers the following assertion: ‘when we remember something painful or nostalgic, we sense it and it sometimes evokes a physical reaction. A scent, a sound all trigger memories as images and narratives in our mind that we re-experience.’ It’s this process of remembrance triggered by some external stimuli that  I hope to explore further with the Medley archive of photographs.

Medley Archive 1964

Medley Archive 1964

One area that draws together media and memory is the representation of personal memory usually associated with personal family archive. It often results in a form of mediation of everyday life helping to provide a reflective paradigm of the social and historical representation of the family. Many examples exist that has resulted in  rich seem of research material providing a  foundation of countless documentary forms.

The roving eye of the photographer, in the seizing of the moment,  captures in what at first glance appears as an innocuous representation of a instant in time which immediately becomes, as Garde-Hansen in her book ‘Media and Memory’ (2011),  the ‘media texts that can be analysed socially, culturally, technologically and historically’ (see also Pattrica Holland’s early work on the family album from 1991).  It is also the underlying premise that informs the work of the Centre for Digital Storytelling and further explorations carried out for the BBC Capture Wales Movement (2001-8). But it also supports human memory development in ways that extend beyond the scope and endeavour of media documentary.

Although much of this emphasis is focussed on family photography, I suggest that this may  be applicable to the study of commercial archives. The question of how photographs can influence our personal memories is a subject I hope to explore further.

Relationships Between Photographs and Memories

Much is written about human memory and its similarities to that of the camera and of the computer to memory. As such memories of experiences form the basis of who we are as individuals. These subsequently become autobiographical. The basis of autobiographical memory is ‘what happened, where it happened and when it happened.’ If the photographs we take replicate this paradigm then the photograph is very much like a memory of a life event. A correlation is therefore established between memory and photographs we perceive in present time which can serve as memory storage and when viewed, can activate memory recall.

Before discussing this relationship between memory and the photograph  we need to explore further the representation of memory. In a recent article by Hyman. Ira. “The Directors Cut: Point of View in Memory.” Psychology Today (2013) an analogy is drawn between  a film director’s use of the camera’s point of view to develop and build a scene and  vary the emotional intensity and the development of memory perspectives and the notion of Field and Observer memory perspectives.

Although these different memory perspectives have been noticed for some time, investigation of a memory point of view only began with a series of studies by Nigro and Neisser in 1983. They contrasted two ways of remembering personal experiences.  In the first instance they called memories  seen from an  original perspective  Field Memories because ‘they encompass your visual field of view.’ In contrast  Observer Memories are when the individual sees themselves  as an outside observer would see and while older memories are more likely to be viewed from this observer perspective crucially the emotional impact is decreased in contrast with those remembering from the field perspective.

False Memories

Photographs can do much more than illustrate events and the notion that photographs might actually distort memory by ‘false memory implantation’ is an intriguing concept for research, particularly as we’re now experiencing a media landscape in which the boundary of what’s real and what’s not is blurred by the proliferation of affordable digital tools that allow for comprehensive forms of digital manipulation.

If memory provides the means to tell a story and a photograph is a way to keep that story alive the manipulation of an image can have a profound effect on our ability to reflect back on the past. An adaption of Loftus and Pickrell (1995) research ‘Lost in the mall’ by Wade, Garry, Read and Lindsay’s 2002 showing that a doctored photograph showing subjects taking a fictitious balloon ride supported the hypothesis that memories can be deceived in a way that leads to ‘false memory implantation’ and call’s into question the authenticity we place on photographic representation.


Flling Soldier Robert Capa (1938)

Although the concept of photo-manipulation isn’t new, here we might explore the debate surrounding Robert Capa’s iconic image of the death of a young Republican militiaman during the Spanish civil war (1936) see ‘The camera never lies but photographers can and do’ by Isabel Hilton,  Guardian (September 2008) that casts doubt over the authenticity of the image, such practice clearly raise questions of a moral and ethical dilemma.

Such concerns aren’t necessarily an issue, in the context of an archive such as Medley’s, but the notion of ‘false memory implantation’ needs to be considered especially when further studies by Maryanne Garry and Mathew P. Garrie (2005) also revealed that so called ‘true’ photographs may also cause similar effects. This may lead to further questions concerning the use of photographs as a visual prompt to memory. Simply put, do they enhance imagination in certain circumstances while constraining it in others?

Memory and Digital Photography

The Valley of the Shadow of Death 1855

Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War (1855), The Valley of the Shadow of Death, had a profound effect on the perception of war and served both as a mnemonic aid and a powerful communicative device of the time. It brought to light the power of photography for influencing public opinion. Limiting the flow of media has always vexed authorities and traditional media outlets. In a networked world of instant messaging and sharing this can prove taxing to control.

In van Dijck’s response to research suggesting that increased availability of digital cameras and cameraphones may simply  favour communication and identity formation. The author is careful not to generalise  the function of modern  photography, which still functions as a memory tool and what has actually changed, significantly, is the ease and function of network distribution leading to a far wider and more complex technological, social and cultural transformation  A summary from a paper produced by José van Dijck – Digital Photography: communication, identity, memory (2008) might useful:

The paper opens with a suggestion that the act of  taking photographs is  no longer primarily concerned with the preservation of family heritage and increasingly it’s now very much a tool for individual identity and communication.

However, while pre-digital photography naturally emphasised autobiographical remembering, usually amounting to the presentation of a family keepsake, it still functioned as a tool for identity formation and communication.

So the article shifts attention towards revealing how technical changes, combined with insights in cognitive science and socio-cultural transformations have affected the personal photograph’s role in communication and the shaping of identity and memory.

Clearly what van Dijck articulates is the observation that we are witnessing a shift, especially among the younger generation, towards using photography as an instrument for peer bonding and interaction.

There have been some profound shifts in the balance between various social uses:

Family towards Individual Use  – see Harrison, Barbra (2002)’Photographic Visions and Narrative Enquiary’.

From Memory Tools to Communication Devices

From Sharing (Memory) Objects to Sharing Experiences

But crucially digitisation is not the cause of this trend.

A useful analogy is presented on how  cameraphone photography can give rise to a cultural form reminiscent of the old-fashioned postcard: snapshots with a few words attached meant to be thrown away after they are received.

While recognising that older generations place more emphasis on building collections for future reference; and the younger generation see less interest in sharing photographs as objects than in sharing them as experiences.  We shouldn’t dismiss the role of social platforms such as Flickr and the attendant options for distribution that encourage both the categorisation and annotation of photographic artefacts and so easily function as a basis for communication, identity formation and the capture of memory moments.

It’s rather simplistic to assume that a memory becomes fixed forever once the camera shutter is released.  From a photograph’s perspective ‘memories are created just as much as they are recalled from photographs.’ In José van Dijck’s view ‘recollections never remain the same even if the photograph represents a fixed image of the past.’ We use these pictures  to constantly reassess our past lives and reflect on ‘what has been, what is and what might be.’

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