Welcome to Pine Point

Welcome to Pine Point is a remarkable NFB digital project by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (of the creative team The Goggles, known for their work with Adbusters among other projects).

According to the “about” page, this project started off as a book about the “death of photo albums as a way to house memory.”  Instead, they produced a haunting interactive documentary that reflects on place, memory, longing, loss, the stories we tell, and the formats and matrials we use to tell them.

I wish that in some ways it could have said more … I wanted more analytical “stuff” somewhere in there (links to footnote essays?) … but I also realized in watching this just how important the silences (or the minimal nature of the words on the screen) were to the overall impact of the narrative.  This is a story told in collages of visual imagery, combining photographs, moving images, maps, primary documents, kitschy objects — all in a way that affirms their respective materialities rather than denies them.  In the journey to Pine Point there are shades of Burtynsky, a critical awareness of “seeing like a state,” and some very sharp observations.

I found this tremendously moving – perhaps in no small part because these are my high school years too, although my small town is still standing, unlike Pine Point, which is a place destroyed and yet ultimately redeemed.

In my photography and public history course there is one class where I ask everyone to bring in a “photo album” to discuss.  Over time, more students are increasingly showing up with no album in hand; when everything is in digital format, “album” is a folder on a desktop or a stream in flickr.  I bring my own ‘baby book’ with my mother’s writing carefully documenting every morsel I ate, every step I took, a photo for every first day of school; it feels so much more tangible as a multidimensional aide-memoire.

It’s easy to lament this passing; it’s much harder to think about the new ways that memory and place interact in digital spaces, in new types of albums, in producing new stories out of old pictures.  The visual landscapes are layered with evocative aural landscapes (thank you Besnard Lakes!), and much more could be said about how image, text, and sound inter-relate in this project.

I recently quoted from Thomas King’s Massey Lectures in a presentation given at my alma mater, and it seems apt to repeat it here: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”  King’s purpose was rather different, but Welcome to Pine Point reaffirms the general sentiment in unexpected, but welcome, ways.

Alma Mater

I lugged the camera to my Alma Mater, Augustana during a bitterly cold week in March. It didn’t see much use, but I did venture out to take a few pictures in between speaking engagements. Founded in 1910 as Camrose Lutheran College, I was part of the first class to graduate as Augustana University College, and this year marks their centenary even though the institution became a part of the University of Alberta in 2004.

Augustana is a pretty special place in terms of my own memories and personal history. I’ve been back a few times, but spending a full day and a half on campus made a huge difference this time in stirring up a lot of emotions. Strangely, it’s because of the changes that have happened on campus that I feel almost closer to the place now than I have at any other time since I left. Perhaps the bonds of nostalgia have grown with age, but it is also in no small part due to how the campus has rediscovered its own place in both global and local terms. Reading Roger Epp’s reflections on Augustana in his We Are All Treaty People brought home a lot of issues that I’d been struggling with in terms of thinking about the role of the university and the distinctive education I received at Augustana.

Being back at this moment, during the centenary, and being a part of Roger’s last year as Dean, was a tremendous experience which I am incredibly grateful for.

Here, Martin Luther walks between Old Main and the brand new library building.

It isn’t working

I’m travelling this week with my four-year old daughter. First big trip together, just the two of us, and no Mom to chaperone us. Before we left, she asked if we could print out a picture of Mom and her together in case she got lonely. This was a technique we had used in her preschool so that if she was sad, she would go find the picture and wear it around her neck to remind her of Mom. Of course, this time she also had a picture printed up of her so that Mom wouldn’t forget her, and would remember that her daughter loved her (her words, more or less).

The first night away went well until the next morning. Around 6:30, I heard some sobbing in her room and went to see what was the matter. She was clutching the picture of Mom and crying. Between the tears and the sobs, she finally tells me, “It’s not working!”

I’ve been telling that story to a few people over the past few days, and of course they find it endearing and we chuckle at the way she expressed her sadness at missing mom. But the more I think about it, the more I think that my daughter has it right – we need to think about photographs more in terms of whether or not they “work”, and start to consider how they sometimes don’t work at all. Especially when it comes to thorny questions of memory.

In some work on memory and photography, especially those that rely heavily on photoelicitation techniques, there is a temptation to reduce photographs to the status of tools that can extract the “real” memories that have be dormant or forgotten for long periods of time. Despite claims of triangulation between the image, the viewer, and the memory expressed, the relationship often privileges the ultimate expression of certain memories over understanding the exchanges between the other parts.

I’m not sure exactly how photographs “work”, but I’m glad my daughter asked that question because that’s what mattered in a very material way to her emotions and feelings at the time.

Tonight, at the end of our journey, I asked her how the trip went. She told me that the first day was a little tough, but the rest of the days were GREAT. Maybe the photograph started to work after all.