One morning in September 2008 I had a once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with a great blue heron. I had gone on a photo walk around the fishponds near Guelph Correctional Centre when I came face-to-face with the big wading bird. They’re normally shy but it did not remove itself so I started shooting photos. As I would discover later, that awesome photo session did not translate to a full memory of what happened. Remembering things requires some effort.
Later that day I posted one photo to Flickr. In the image the heron stands a few steps away making eye contact. That episode became my only memory of the encounter.
Photography changes how we remember things. It changes how people observe and record history. Anyone can visualize atomic bombs exploding over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because visual records exist. A portrait of Queen Victoria from 1882 portrays her with photographic impartiality, while for Napoleon born 50 years earlier we must rely on the subjectivity of writers and painters.
Disadvantages of recording only with a camera
A camera is a powerful tool, but it also has some drawbacks. Often it distracts me from important details of other senses than sight. I don’t remember how warm or cold it was that day. I don’t remember my mood, what I was thinking about, or what I had eaten for breakfast. The camera also encourages me to see selectively. I may be drawn to photograph a vivid wildflower or something unexpected like a heron. The movements of poplar leaves can be mesmerizing but don’t translate well into an image.
Photographers strive to give an experience of being in the moment. It’s illusory.
Social media fueled by smartphone photography changes even how we relate to our own lives. We can seek attention for whatever we eat, wear, buy, fix, and do. At the same time it removes us slightly from the doing. We do it through a lens. We begin narrating our lives as if in third-person, and without time to reflect on what we’ve done.
Recently I have been sorting old photos. When I came to Sept. 17, 2008, I discovered the encounter with the heron went on much longer than that individual frame. After posing in front of me for two minutes, it took flight providing an amazing photo opp. For 20 minutes I followed it around the edge of the pond. Eventually below an embankment of Highway 7 with busy traffic zomming past, it saw a fish and became absorbed in stalking its breakfast.
My point-and-shoot camera was not fully adequate. The photo of the bird in flight lacked crisp focus, though I’m better able now to compensate in Lightroom and make the image presentable. I can see why at the time I chose the portrait of the bird standing in front of me. I had set a goal of posting one photo each day. That was the one.
I forgot the rest. My state of mind in September 2008 was preoccupied. My journal does not record meeting the heron. Over the years my mind has come to associate the experience with one image only.
Finally the gift of photography has reunited me with more of the beauty that occurred. However, a few days have passed since I found the photos. No memories have returned, only the visual record.
Tips for remembering things better
There is a remedy for this. Although it takes effort, better memory is possible with a drop of mindfulness and some reflection. Here are some ideas:
- When you experience something you want to remember fully, put the camera down for a moment and take in all the sensual data you can: smell, taste, sound, the feelings on your skin.
- Ask yourself, “What do I most want to remember?”
- If the answer suggests photos, take them.
- If the camera can’t capture things you want to remember, take time to pay attention.
- Make notes as soon as possible, either during the event or soon afterward.
- Make an appointment several days later to revisit your records. See how your impressions have changed. Is there anything you can add to your record?
- If appropriate, show your photos and tell your experience to someone… later, not only while it’s happening, but when it has become a memory.
I wish I had known to do these things when I met the great blue heron, but I was younger then and thought I’d remember it forever.