How does photography change remembering? A reflective workshop

Today I went out to the Uni of Edinburgh Veterinary School to run a session with the staff there, the brief being to get people to think about something a bit outside their normal routine. Thanks to Jessie Paterson and Sharon Boyd for setting this up.

I had asked everyone to bring a photo from a year or two ago to the session. It could be in print, on a smartphone or an iPad, as long as they could access it. During the session, each of the 8 participants then told a story relating to the event depicted in the photo which proved to be an interesting exercise in itself. There were rich sensory experiences involving food, music and emotions. There were connections between the time the photo was taken and much earlier experiences. There were also memories of important family bonding experiences.

Next, I asked them to think of a story for which there are no photos. This was visibly more difficult, the cognitive strain written on most of their faces. Largely, this turned out to be because it was difficult to think of an event at which they knew no photos had been taken. I suspect it may also have been more difficult to know when non-photographed events took place since photographs can be referenced against others in a collection – but this is based more on speculation than on the statements of the participants.

Finally, I discussed my research so far. This led to an interesting discussion around false memory, particularly in relation to people with Alzheimer’s Disease and the general unreliability of the anecdotal evidence of memory produced in conversation.

An interesting point that came up was the ethical issues around encouraging people with Alzheimer’s Disease to construct potentially inaccurate memories based on information in photographs. In other words, if they are given photographs which contain clues of their activity, will this lead to confabulation if they are otherwise unable to recall what happened? With the caveat that I am not a specialist in Alzheimer’s Disease or any memory impairment, I would say the following: it is important to be mindful of this possibility – in some cases the benefit to self esteem and social functioning of remembering something would outweigh any negative impacts of inaccurate memory, whereas in others misremembering might create significant problems. Finally, I would say that this is probably an extension of a universal phenomenon: that all episodic memories are, to an extent, false due to the reconstructive nature of remembering that is influenced by current perspective, previous remembering, mood, setting, etc.

Anyway, this was an enjoyable and informal session which I would happily repeat with others.


  1. “In other words, if they are given photographs which contain clues of their activity, will this lead to confabulation if they are otherwise unable to recall what happened”

    I’m beginning to use EverNote (app) as a learning / research aid for dissertation – I can understand the potential ‘misconception / confabulation’ around image alone related to contexts of one type or another. EverNote produces / amalgamates image, sound, text (text files) in a user structured digital environment, so maybe would provide a more rigorous juxtaposition of sense elements – so leading to greater accuracy in recollection?

  2. Hi Phil – this is a good question. It makes me think about the notion of triangulation, where different sources of information help us to create a potentially more balanced view. One form of information is not necessarily more accurate than another, but can show up different aspects of a situation and help us to support or counter our conclusions.

    Accuracy is a somewhat problematic notion in relation to memory, though, since it’s impossible to know what “actually” happened other than in relation to some evidence such as CCTV footage or eyewitness accounts, or in relation to a consensus view (where a group of people agree on a description of what happened).

    There are also epistemological stances that would claim that there isn’t one particular thing that happened but that what happened depends on context or perspective, for example.

    And, importantly, very high accuracy is not necessarily an appropriate goal for memory. Martin Conway (2005) uses the terms correspondence and coherence to describe two related properties of memory. Correspondence is the extent to which what is remembered matches with what was experienced (something that, again, we can’t know for sure), while coherence is the extent to which memory is “consistent with an individual’s current goals, self-images, and self-beliefs,” (p. 595). Coherence, Conway argues, is an important part of remembering which allows us to remember in a way that is useful to our current state, and it follows that completely accurate, comprehensive memory is not actually a desirable capability.

    It depends on what you are talking about, though – if you are looking to remember things from a field of knowledge rather than from autobiographical experience, it is probably mostly concerned with semantic memory where correspondence may be both more likely and more fundamentally important, with coherence being negotiated as one learns new concepts and fits them with what is already known (I am in new territory here, so am just speculating).

    To try to come back to your question, I would say that combining different forms of information is likely to produce a more rounded and richer account from which to reconstruct a situation, but that we must always select the content and form of what we remember from a much wider range of possibilities, meaning that what we remember may be accurate in some senses but will always be inaccurate in others. I hope this makes some sense?

    Conway, M. A. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53(4), 594–628. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2005.08.005

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