Our Memory, Our Identity, Our Reality: The Affects of Photography
"In teaching us a new visual code, photography alters and enlarges our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing."
~Susan Sontag, On Photography
"Hence it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of black life to the visual, to art making, make photography central. Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic. "
~bell hooks, In Our Glory
Based on the short story of his younger brother, Jonathan Nolan, Film Director and Screenwriter Christopher Nolan created the film Memento, released in 2000. Guy Pierce stars as the lead character, Leonard Shelby. The film is a highly non-linear, thriller film-noir mystery. Leonard Shelby was once a man who lived a humble, yet charmed life. He married the woman of his dreams; he lived in a lovely home. His occupation was in the insurance industry as an investigator. One particular case haunts him repeatedly, that of Sammy Jankis, a man who suffered memory loss as a result of an accident. Shelby did not believe in the man's condition and did not rule positively on his claim; Jankis' wife ultimately sacrifices her life in order to prove the truth -- that her husband truly did suffer from memory problems. Their lives weigh heavily upon Shelby. The paper argues that Memento brings to light differences in perspective on the potential for photography upon identity and memory between Susan Sontag and bell hooks.
Shelby and his wife find themselves the victims of a home invasion one evening. Shelby's beloved wife is brutally murdered and Shelby survives, yet the injuries inflicted upon him leave him with a memory condition of his own: anterograde amnesia. This condition leaves Leonard unable to build short-term memories. Characters throughout the film ridicule and manipulate Shelby for selfish reasons, exploiting his memory loss and dependency on images. To help himself remember, Leonard Shelby carries a Polaroid camera with him at all times, photographing and labeling important people, places, or locations. Leonard also tattoos his body with information, phrases, years, names, and whatever else he deems so significant that he should never forget.
As a true film noir, the film starts at the narrative's end. Leonard Shelby grins for a photograph taken by a person yet unknown to the audience. Leonard is covered in blood. He grins because he believes he has fulfilled his vengeful pursuit of the person responsible for his wife's murder and his memory condition: the elusive, John G. What Leonard ultimately discovers and then forgets is that he has long since killed John G. The murder he just committed of another, not wholly innocent man, is a result of manipulation and exploitation. Leonard gets caught in a tense relationship between Natalie and Teddy who use Leonard and his amnesia as a way to hurt each other. They exploit his dependency on images to show the truth and replace his memory so as to manipulate Leonard to carry out their dirty deeds. Meanwhile, a mysterious person prank calls Leonard habitually, taunting him with scraps of his past; the stranger plays psychological games with Leonard, a psychologically fragile, imbalanced, and vulnerable man.
Susan Sontag discourse in "On Photography," is of the pervasive affects photography has upon perception, experience, sight, and space, both internal and external. Sontag masterfully analyzes the deeper meanings, functions, and implications of photography as she contends: "Photographs furnish evidence…Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are." (Sontag, "On Photography," 1973) Photographs prove to Leonard that he is real and that his experiences are real. While they prove some level of existence, there is a power to extinguish in photography. Sontag continues that "As photographs give people an imaginary past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure…A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a ways of refusing it -- by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir." (Sontag, "On Photography," 1973)
Memento is the story of a man who loses his visual code. Shelby attempts to replace his visual code, his memory, with artificial substitutes: notes, tattoos, and Polaroids. Leonard's use of photography enlarges the audience's sense of what they are looking at, a film, a scene, a photograph, and what they have a right to observe. This feeling kind of makes the audience visible for an instance. The feeling reminds the audience that it is watching a character in a film; it brings the artificiality of the moving-going experience to surface, when all we want to do, one of the biggest reasons we go to the cinema, is to forget who we are and where we are to escape into the story of imaginary characters who are somehow like us.
The past is the place where Leonard Shelby feels insecure. In fact, Leonard Shelby feels insecure in all forms of time: in the past, in the present, and in the future. He uses pictures to mildly alleviate his insecurity in time. He is insecure as he moves through time because he can maintain no reliable means of documentation of it. Yet Leonard's failure is our failure even if our memories work better than his. The film and Susan Sontag demonstrate that all forms of memory are "unreliable" and photography only magnifies and exploits that trait of memory. Leonard's photos do as Sontag states above. His photos refuse aspects of his experience. There are aspects of the truth of Leonard's experience that are outside the realm of the photo. He cannot see the manipulation he is subject to by Natalie and Teddy. He cannot see his vertiginous, murderous, aimless spiral of revenge in which he engages. The photos deny that part of the truth from Leonard and as he cannot remember without or outside of them, the photos literally stand in the place of his memories. We see this at the commencement of the film with his the souvenir of the murder of Teddy, whom Leonard believed to be John G., and we learn this at the end of the film as we approach the same scene from a more linear trajectory, encountering the same picture of a grinning, blood-spattered Leonard.
The piece by bell hooks, "In Our Glory," is very much concerned with the associative power of imagery to the associative nature of memory. Her writing revolves around how images serve as memory, induce memory or remembrance, replace memory, or rewrite memory. She writes of the prescriptive and liberating potential of photography in relation to memory & identity: "Using images, we connect ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enables us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye." (hooks, "In Our Glory," Page 64) The reproduction of images is a weakness in Memento. No matter how many photographs Leonard takes and no matter the content of the photographs, he will never progress. He is stuck in an infinite loop. It spirals laterally and sometimes downward, but it spirals on. At the close of the film, the audience senses that Leonard will continue encountering people who exploit and manipulate him. There are flashbacks and scenes that show the degree of fatal danger this injury brings Leonard Shelby. By the close of the film, the audience senses that a similar narrative with different characters is in store for Leonard Shelby and will repeat until he gets himself into a situation that out of which there is no escape. There is a sort of fatalistic or nihilistic tone to the film. There is no happy ending. There is no ending at all.
Memento is a film that puts the authors' theories and suppositions into practice; the film is a moment of applied aesthetics and applied theory. Memento is a film with focus upon the relationships between memory, images, and language. It is the story of a man who replaces his broken memory with a series of photographs and tattoos. Sontag and hooks disagree about the moral compass of photography. Each author makes valid points. Their disagreement eliminates the whole "is photography good or bad, freedom or prison" debate; their disagreement points to something that makes the whole debate moot. The point is that photography, like all technology, is neither negative nor positive, neither good, nor bad. Technology is neutral. People use photography for good or for bad. People use photography to repress or express; to heal or to wound; to enslave or to free. The debate about the nature of photography is a debate about the nature of humanity. What we do with the objects, technology, etc. we have reflects who we…