Thursday, April 8, 2010

a memory experiment

I was Antigua, Guatemala for the last 3 days of Semana Santa.   For a lot of people this is a reason in itself to come to Antigua.  And to be honest I had been wanting to see what it was all about since I had heard about it.  My friend Alex was with me for the first night (friday) and with her background in Art History and Latin she was pretty geeked out about the whole thing.  And I have to say the whole thing is really quite impressive, but I didn't take a single picture.
I didn't really think about it at the time, but a while into it I made a conscious decision not to take a photo.  I wanted to see if memory is really affected by not having a photo to reference it.  My idea being that for so many travelers travel has come down to digital images.  Imagine (or maybe you can just remember if this has unfortunately happened to you) that your camera is suddenly lost after an incredible 2 week vacation.  Feel that sinking in your stomach, that ache of desire, what is it that you are missing?  What is it about these images that we are so attached to?  Most of us never print our photos out.  Most of our friends aren't all that interested in seeing them.  And yet sometimes its seems that our photos are more important than our memories, in fact that our photos are our memories. 
I wanted to see if without a photo would my experience of Semana Santa be changed. Though a photo doesn't capture the smell choking smoke of Copal that turns the streets of Antigua in to eerie gray passageways, nor the thundering music which signals Jesus' death, nor the slow swaying walk of the men and women who stoop under the weight of the huge platforms loaded with life size wooden sculptures of Jesus, Angels, Saints and crying Marys, something still impels us to snap away. But what it is that makes us so attached to our images?  Is it this crazy idea that with out a photo we will some how forget where we have been?
I was thinking of this again today as I was walking down the streets of Livingston to the bank.  When we focus on capturing the image we forget to take the time to absorb the details.  Considering this as I walked I tried to take the time to absorb more details, the sounds, the smells, the people.  And now I wonder if my memories of those slow moving marches are sharpened by the fact that while they were passing me I could focus entirely on that moment and not on framing a photo, or if my memories will fade with age and I will wish for a photo to remind me that I was there.
The truth is, I won´t know the answer to this for quite sometime.  Memories take time to settle into the creases of your brain.  Some make an imprint so strong that they never seem to fade, and others are forgotten precisely the moment they happen.
In all honesty, my strongest memories don´t have a photo with which to associate them.  They are standing 9 miles out in the wilderness on my first back packing trip gazing out at an endless sea of evergreen and granite.  Or the feeling of walking out in to Little India my first night in Singapore, the scent of spices and rhythm of bollywood soundtracks pulsating through the heavy air.  Or a moon rising over the freeway overpasses with Mt. Tam in silhouette as I paddle in from practice.  Sometimes that ache or desire to capture a moment is the very thing that makes us remember it with precision.  In our inability to otherwise document it, we take the time to tatoo the present moment into our minds, where it will stay with us, regardless of crashed computers or lost negatives.

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