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.

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