Remembering and Forgetting
I have avoided photography during the pandemic. For me, photography is about remembering, not forgetting, and I want to forget the COVID-19 pandemic. I have slowly started to get back to work. One of the photos I took to symbolize this period was of a newspaper box, photographed on January 14, 2021. The cover proclaimed “Amid vaccine hopes, deaths soar.” And a larger headline, as if apropos of the times in general: “Bracing for More Violence.”
Early January was maybe the darkest time of the pandemic. Three thousand plus dying a day at a time when we believed the worst was behind us. It is always darkest before the dawn.
It is now, at the time of this writing, early April and the desire to make pictures is returning with the budding spring season. A more recent photo from one of my neighborhood walkabouts is of a tombstone lying on its back. It was taken in a cemetery where soldiers of the American Revolution are buried. The tombstone is pure white. I have no idea who it represents.
And then I realized that the shape of the two objects in these two different pictures - a tombstone and a newspaper box - are eerily similar in shape.
The news, obstensibly, tells you about important current events. People look back at the frontpages of newspapers like they do photographs: this not only happened, once it was happening. This is what I was thinking when I took the photograph of the newspaper box - this was the news of the day. We became numb to it. This was once considered normal.
Tombstones themselves are another kind of remembering. This person was born, had a family, built things, fought in a war, and then died. But we can only take so much bad news, and we can only remember so much.
The country we have today, with all of its problems, would not exist if there weren’t people who fought off the yoke of opression (yes, I know, only to lead to more oppression) and so we should honor them, and we do in theory, but we know very little about them in actual fact. And we don’t care to know more. We live modern lives and have modern concerns. Mostly, we want to forget.
There are fewer and fewer newspaper boxes out there in the wild. The news is controlled by a tiny minority for the majority of people and is mostly consumed online. Newspapers are fast becoming a relic of the past. Fading. Too slow and cumbersome for the minute by minute news cycle. Soon to be forgotten.
Photography, like a tombstone, is an object for remembrance. This is why, for me, every photograph contains an element of nostalgia. Even with a Polaroid there was the eerie feeling of seeing something photographed and realizing that it was fixed in a way that the thing it represented, right there, was not.
But everything seems different now - and will be different again tomorrow. The attention economy on social media creates an altered atmosphere for photography. The now is all-important and perhaps eclipses the photograph’s emphasis on the past. This thing is very important right now! Memes are made and spread. After all we must do something! And then this imperative is forgotten in a week to be replaced by a new concern. The pace of forgetting has sped up, from generations, to years, to months, to days. It is non-stop neophilia - and nothing survives this brutal regime. The emphasis on the present creates an environment where everything is made in order to be forgotten.
To forget is human, but at what pace and at what scale? Maybe it’s normal to forget Revolutionary soldiers, but is it normal to forget what happened last month?
I’d like to think of photography, the kind of photography I love, as an antidote to this trend but I’m not sure it can be as it is itself a gear inside this attention-making/forgetting machine. Sometimes it seems hopeless. But it’s always darkest before the dawn.