From The Handmaid’sTale by Margaret Atwood:
All historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
The connection between photography and memory is a facile one. Who doesn’t have a photograph of a time or place that they would like to remember? The school photo, the vacation snapshot, the wedding photograph all verify, more concretely than memory, that a certain moment occurred. Or do they? Even before digital manipulation, photography has had, at best, a loose relationship with reality. On the one hand, we are taught to consider photographs as representations of the real when they appear in newspapers, court rooms, scientific publications, etc. But even these images are produced by way of any number of subjective decisions which determine the “reality” of what is portrayed.So what put me on this line of thought? First, I’m currently reading The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald which is a combination of reminiscence by the narrator and his chronicling of the lives and travels of the four emigrants of the title. Though the narrator is never identified, I can’t help thinking it’s Sebald himself. It’s a thought that’s at odds with the book being a work of fiction. This tension between document and fiction is strengthened by photographs placed throughout the text as if they have been collected from various shoe boxes and albums of the characters. The images, though they appear to relate to the text, could very well be a collection of unrelated images around which the author created his story. The book has me wondering, as if I were watching a movie “based on a true story,” how much is remembrance and how much is pure fabrication.
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