Photography and Spatial Memory
by Mark Hahn
We lose the memories of many specific moments that shape us into the people we become. There are too many details to hold onto so we’re left with the incompleteness of abstract emotions that have been imprinted in our mind through experience. As a photographer, rediscovering the spaces of these imprints can be meaningful exploration – shedding light into who we are and how we’ve gotten to wherever we ended up.
Exploring abandoned domestic spaces lets us construct temporary structures that allow us to experience some of our orphaned emotional memories that have nothing else to attach themselves to. To a certain degree, we all share the same common basic human needs and live in similar domestic environments designed to meet those needs. Viewing these spaces as they fall into varying degrees of ruin can trigger memory based deja vu. It doesn’t matter that the space is not technically our own, in fact the response can be even more powerful because it isn’t our own. Sometimes the possible is much more exciting or troubling than what has actually happened. The connections we uncover often broaden our emotional responses.
If we can imagine that we have been somewhere in our past, even though it is not from our literal past, the feelings stirred up can be veryy real. Feelings are what count most in life, not the explicit objects we associate them with. If we can allow ourselves to feel our past memories while standing in a found-space we can sometimes sew together the discontinuities that have been left within ourselves. Without a mirror to reflect and fortify the self-image that we have created in life, we can sometimes feel ourselves as just who we are – including all the pain, the satisfaction and the insecurities. It is the spark of existence that makes us who we are, not the objects we surround ourselves with or the accomplishments we stack up and brag about over our lifetime.
Art photography can give us a doorway into discovering our abstract internal spaces. It’s another way of connecting with what is already there within us. Unlike the other arts though, photography is limited by reality. Reality is our artist’s medium – we create our work from what is real and discoverable. One of my photography professors started out his class saying, “If nothing else, after taking this course, you will come out possessing another way of seeing.” This is the true gift of photography. When you are really successful, others can see something new and personal through your work as well.
Trespassing into the wreckage of other people’s past lives often puts you in touch with the residue of all our collective pasts. None of us is really as special as we feel. The act of trespassing into someone’s abandoned home is of course legally questionable, but probably more problematic in an ethical sense since in essence, we are acting as thieves — appropriating what at one time was inside someone else’s personal boundaries and using it for our own creative purposes. Legal issues aside, I believe as long as the original occupants are not identified or exploited, that appropriating scenes from their abandoned spaces to use as a vehicle of expression of my own emotional memories is not terribly problematic.
Many things cannot be created from scratch, they need to be discovered. When you trespass into the unknown, you are already on hyper-alert. You don’t know what or who you will encounter when you turn a blind corner. You can make you feel both fear and excitement. Fear of the unknown in the form of danger and excitement in the endless possibility of discovery.
Excitement and happiness are easily understand, but fear is an ancient emotion residing in the amygdala – hidden somewhere in the deepest and most primitive part of our brain. Fear ties our earliest memories and emotions to the present moment. At the edge of a fight-or-flight reaction we take in our surroundings differently than under normal circumstances. We move quickly through a space, sizing up our surroundings. Certain things trigger an emotional response. Pow! Snap! You catch it in your viewfinder.
Literal objects trigger expected memories. For me, when I see an old pack of Chesterfields lying on the ground in some abandoned place I remember that my grandfather smoked them. It is a predictable response. Sometimes though, when I run across the right combination of elements – perhaps a special light playing of wood paneling in an abandoned kitchen, I can momentarily imagine what it felt like to be with him. I can hear his voice and smell the bacon cooking from when he made me breakfast in the morning. I can’t predict these memory triggers since they are so abstract in nature, but the memories and emotions that come from them can be so immediate and direct that the triggers must be set somewhere in the depths of my mind.
Memories lie deeper than the scraps of paper that we collect – more than the two dimensional photos and birthday cards that we save and accidentally leave in the houses we vacate. Memories are inscribed into our minds in multidimensional space with complex connections that even we cannot decipher. Lists and dates are just simple data points. The wholeness of memory is experienced through indescribable emotions, triggered by the unexpected. Depending on our ability to let go and open our eyes, we can find meaning in many different places.