Memory as No-Man’s Land

Shani Nahmias

In a reality in which we are requested to behave according to a complex set of rules and conventions, memory is a type of shelter.
A no-man’s land to which we escape in order to grab ourselves the freedom to map out, design, mark and preserve the pantheon of impressions we have accumulated in our lives. We have full possession of memory and an autonomous right to change and distort the entirety of our experiences. In the space reserved for memory, it is we who decide what we want to forget.

Historic facts cannot touch our memories, because the latter are compared to a stone monument – although the marks of time are visible, many years will pass before it crumbles and disappears. Like the space in which they exist, memories are shapeless, scopeless and weightless. Having said that, they are our most treasured possessions. They shape our spirit and imbue validity into the sequence of events that constitute our lives.

Memory’s deceitful nature – one moment clear and tangible, the next waning and vanishing – summons unlimited opportunities for us to live and re-live past events, either real or imaginary. In times of duress, we will turn to them for comfort, direction and explanation as far as our imagination can stretch. Unlike collective memory frameworks – government archives, memorial monuments and all sorts of conservation projects – which try to delineate objective memory, accepted and agreed by all, our individual memory operation exists subordinate to our mechanism of consciousness. This transforms personal memory into a limitless entity, instinctive and wild, with its only wish being to live undisturbed.

The attempt to give visual expression to memory, and thus apply the range of forces working on plastic imagery, is doomed to disaster. It is a violent action, identical to imprisoning a wild animal in order to tame it. In his book “Reflections on Photography”, Barthes argues the following with regard to the relationship between photography and memory: “At the root of the matter, not only is photography never on the same plane as memory, it essentially blocks memory and rapidly becomes anti-memory.”*

Barthes regards the freezing of time in stills photography as monstrous and exaggerated. In my opinion, the action of stretching time, enabled by video film, is essentially that too. Here is a process that completely contradicts memory’s twisting and evasive nature. Despite this, we are accustomed to immortalize our memories using stills or video photography, since it is accepted practice to think that the photographed subject actually happened.

However, we can say that memory and photographic action do share one thing in common – they are both untruthful and deceptive. We can argue that they were or that they happened, without there being any explicit proof or solid basis in reality.

Shani Nahmias, May 2009

* Roland Barthes, Reflections on Photography, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, 1980, p.93.