Senses, memory (and photography)

I am about half way through a two-week trip to Israel. I am here photographing (duh,) touring, visiting and helping Annu with her project photographing three generations of women (in this case Israelis.) Because I have spent so much time here (living full-time and visiting for long stretches,) I sort of know the place. On the other hand I have not been here in eleven years, so many things have changed. As I am walking around, photographing, things seem vaguely familiar yet… Since arriving, I have tried hard to analyze my reaction to being here again. Photography is clearly at the core of my memories of this place, but so are other senses.

Israel is a place overrun with multiple layers of memories, far beyond just my own. Almost every building we see and person we meet has stories and memories that spread out in all sorts of directions over equally varying histories. Since I am not sure I can add anything to the already very complex political debate, I am not going to take on the political situation here, though we have encountered it almost daily in the time we have been here. I am writing about memory, photography and my time in a place layered with memories.

I am sure someone much smarter than I has already researched and established a hierarchy to explain which of our senses most profoundly shapes our creation and later recall of memories. My question for that person would be is that hierarchy universal or is it unique to each individual? Also, is that hierarchy fixed in each of us or does it change based on age, experience or other circumstances?

As a photographer I have long wondered if one reason that I am a photographer is that my most intense memories are visual. That leads me to wonder if musicians are musicians, at least in part, because their strongest memories are auditory. As I was writing this, I started to similarly wonder if one reason some people become chefs is that their strongest memories might be through their senses of taste/smell?

As humans, we use writing as a way to hold onto memories. As someone who writes a lot (too much) I put writing into a completely different league than memories triggered directly by the senses. Writing requires an intellectual process that gives visuals (symbols/letters) specific meanings based on a common agreement about that meaning (which is another way of describing language.) With our senses, we see, hear, feel, smell or taste something in a very visceral way that does not require that same kind of intellectual processing.

In the range of senses I have long had trouble with the title for the sense of touch, which always suggested running my finger across the edge of a knife. On this trip I finally grasped that the sense of touch really means the sense we use to make memories via our skin. I have many “skin-based” memories of this place, some of which have been triggered by being back here. The recent memories merged with the longstanding ones as the harsh mid-day sun beat down on my neck. Equally compelling was the pure pleasure of a cool breeze that drew away the same sweat as we sat in the shade after a long walk in the sharp sunlight.

As we walked through East Jerusalem, the rough stones and narrow streets triggered memories of tear gas on my skin (and in my nose) which I had encountered decades earlier while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sense of smell often strikes me as an under-appreciated sense, whether I am remembering tear gas or the smell of my baby daughter after a bath. The food here has generally been spectacular, so my sense of taste has been toggling between the pure pleasure I experience with the food on my plate, versus the memories of equally fabulous meals from years (or decades past.)

Sound has been one sense where I have experienced something of a disconnect between my experiences here and my long-standing memories. The country is as noisy as ever with people talking in all sorts of languages, at all sorts of speeds (and volumes.) Cars, sirens and babies dominate the auditory landscape. The radio, in Hebrew and/or Arabic, is common in the taxis and on the streets. It is more background music than front and center, in my mind. What is front and center in my memories, is the music of my adolescence, the songs we sung at Jewish summer camp. These are tunes that I have by and large left behind, in the back corridors of my memory. But they came roaring to life (and into the front of my consciousness) as I am walking around here.

The thing that interest me now is how incredibly effective the teachers, camp counselors, songwriters and musicians were in burning their work (and their ideologies) into our memories. In summer camp decades ago, they figured out how to give us life long memories in the form of songs, using catchy beats, simple phrasing with pop/folk/rock musical cadences. These resulted in sweeping songs that keep popping into my head as I travel around Israel.

Since music is often a communal experience, the memories provoked by music, for me, contrast sharply with the more individual experiences of memories triggered through my sense of sight. On a larger scale, there are many shared images/memories that are big parts of the culture and the life here, such as Holocaust imagery or photographs from the numerous Middle East wars. But in the end, much image-based memories are more individual in nature.

At the top of the hierarchy of memory, in my mind, are visual memories, especially photographs. Information in photographs seems to reach our heart and mind quicker than information that comes through most other senses. Sound, for example, especially in the form of speech, requires an intellectual processing just like writing, doubly so if the spoken language is not the listener’s native tongue.

People here work hard to harness the power of visuals, since the museums and monuments, on both sides, are chock full of images, usually used to argue for their story (or highlight their authenticity.) Historical photos are commonplace, from the museum walls to the hotels lobbies to the café corridors to the shops selling contemporary prints from vintage negatives. (These increasingly look like they have been scanned and printed on contemporary Resin Coated photographic paper.)

In my time here, I have visited locations where I made some of the more important images of my career. Not that I went to go back and remake those images (though that is an obvious temptation.) Going back to a place that is the source of a photograph is of course returning to the site of a memory in the making. The thing is, I look at and share certain photographs so often that the initial memory at the core of those images often gets warped over time. Some of the sites I have visited recently, where I made some of those same important images, have spurred other memories on this trip, often involving other senses besides sight.

What all of this means, is anybody’s guess. What I have been trying to do during my first few days here is pay attention to the interplay between my senses, which take in the experiences I am having and my memory, which takes those same experiences and aligns them with (or differentiates them from) from past experiences. I am hoping that by the time I leave here, or maybe down the road, I will be able to better understand (and maybe even blog about) the interplay between senses and memory (and where my photography fits into that.)

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