Visual Memory's Deception Barbie Zelizer University of Pennsylvania


What is visual memory? And what does it mean to remember through images? Unlike verbal memory, visual memory functions primarily through a dependence on its materiality, on the texture and availability of the paintings, icons, photographs, films, and video clips that give it shape.

We remember whole events through condensed images that reduce complex and multidimensional phenomena into memorable scenes. The meanings of wars, political conflicts, tragic romances, and cataclysmic disasters can all be found within a painter's brush or a camera's lens, as in Emanuel Leutze's 1851 rendition of George Washington crossing the Delaware River or Joe Rosenthal's photographic capture of the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima during World War II.

The materiality of visual memory is deceptive, in that it overstates elements of the visual that cater particularly well to memory work. Visual memory depends on images that are simplified, conventional, schematic, and often composite. These images tend to arbitrarily connect with the event or object being remembered, rarely making explicit how they construct what we see and remember. Collectively held images thus act as signposts, directing people who remember to preferred meaning by the fastest route. These signposts are deceptive, favoring certain strategies for making, collecting, retaining, storing, recycling, and forgetting images that privilege certain ways of remembering over others.

With photographs, visual memory's deception is particularly acute.We need only think of the photo of a dazed Jackie Kennedy gazing upon the swearing-in of Lyndon Baines Johnson as the next U.S. President or of the image of a small boy, his hands stretched above his head, being herded out of the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers, to recognize how well photographs work as vehicles of memory. But their strength is offset by the fact that in memory, one function of photography - its ability to "tell it like it is," commonly called its verisimilitude - is understated in order to privilege a second function - the ability of the photo to act as a symbol. In memory, then, contingent details matter less than the way in which contingent details are made part of a larger interpretive scheme.

My own analysis of Holocaust photography, which forms the basis of my recent book Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye (Chicago, 1998), bears this out with troubling implications for our understanding of contemporary atrocity. Photos of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945 were recorded with inaccurate or incomplete captions, with few credits, and with an uneven relationship to the words at their side. These photos were recognized as symbols of Nazi atrocity more effectively than as contingent details of a specific Nazi action in a specific time and place. By privileging the status of photographs as symbols over that of indexical documents in this way, we have facilitated a depletion of photography's role as a vehicle of memory. Not only do photos undermine our ability to understand the contingent details of Holocaust atrocity but they also deplete our capacity to respond to atrocities today in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and elsewhere. This raises troubling questions about the role of the visual in structuring and shaping our ability to remember.


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