John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Photos Remembered and Forgotten

After you take a series of photographs – during what we photographers call a “shoot” – some of those pictures you’ll definitely remember later on. You’ll also forget some or maybe many of them. Did you ever wonder why some shots stand out in your memory while others elude it?

A Research Study

That’s the fascinating question one of my students, Adam Natoli, brought to my attention and wanted to explore in a research study, perhaps the first of its kind, to my knowledge (a link to his paper appears at the bottom of this article).

The methods we used were relatively simple. Seven college students served as volunteers, including five females and two males. They were given a film camera and instructed to take, over the course of one day, 24 shots of “anything you find interesting, or that feels important to you and/or your life.” After finishing, they gave the camera back.

One week later, Adam interviewed the subjects. First, he asked them what photos they remembered taking. He placed those photos in front of the subjects and allowed them to look over the shots for five minutes. Then he asked a series of questions about the pictures, such as “What were you thinking and what was happening when you took these photos?”…“What thoughts and feelings immediately come to mind about them”… “If these photos could speak, what would they tell or ask you?”… “What are some ways these photos connect to you as a person?”

The subjects were then shown the photographs they had forgotten and asked the same questions.

What did we discover about remembered versus forgotten photos, or, what Adam refers to as “conscious” versus “unconscious” photos? Let’s take a look at the results of the study.

It’s all about feelings

The first finding is one that psychologists have long known about memory in general. EMOTIONS determine what we remember and what we “forget.” If an event in our lives doesn’t generate any particular emotion, it’s not a very powerful candidate for being recalled later on. However, the fascinating thing about emotions, especially strong ones, is that they might result in an event becoming forever burned into our memory, or they might be forgotten - “suppressed” or “repressed” some psychologists would say - BECAUSE they are so powerful.

These principles hold true for photography. If you take a shot of something that catches your eye – maybe the subject involves a pleasing color or composition – you might not remember it later on it if it generated very little emotion. Even though the participants in Adam’s study were instructed to take photos of things that were interesting to them or that felt important to them and their lives, they did take shots that were forgotten a week later simply because they didn’t generate that much emotion (e.g., shots of a participant’s shoes, cell phone, juice boxes, a fish tank).

The participants did tend to recall photos that generated strong positive feelings. For example, one woman who was struggling with a chronic pain condition remembered a photo she had taken of the sky – an image that helped her reduce distress and feel calm. In a previous research project in which I showed subjects a slideshow of my own photos and afterwards asked them what images they remembered, most subjects tended to remember pictures that generated positive feelings of calmness, contentment, security, and love (see the article “The psychological impact of image streams”).

On the other hand, the woman with chronic pain had forgotten a shot of a subject with her head down on a table, which reminded the woman of feeling tired, gloomy, and worn out – a finding which supports the idea that people might forget photos that generate negative feelings.

But if people need to suppress or repress the memory of photos that create upsetting feelings, why do they take those shots in the first place? Wouldn’t they consciously or unconsciously want to overlook those scenes?

It's therapeutic

Here enters what people call “therapeutic photography.” It is a well-known fact among psychotherapists, as well as photographers who use their camera as a tool for personal insight and growth, that taking shots of upsetting subjects might help you become more aware of and master the various feelings associated with those things. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the person suffering from chronic pain would take a photo of something that disturbed her. A week later, however, when she forgot that disturbing image, she did remember the photo of the sky, perhaps because it was the remedy for the negative feelings. She might have suppressed the memory of the negative image, while her mind preferred to recall the photo of the sky that helps her cope with and transcend those negative feelings.

In some cases subjects did recall an image associated with negative emotions IF that aspect of the person’s life had improved. For example, one subject had recently ended a problematic relationship with a boyfriend. In the study, she remembered a photo depicting him along with her two dogs. During the interview, when Adam asked if there was anything she would like to change about the photo, she said that she would remove her ex from it, just as she had removed him from her life. Some people might recall photos of negative situations if they have remedied that situation, or if they have begun to do so.

Premeditation and Spontaneity

The participants tended to remember those photos that required more effort to take, as in shots of carefully arranged objects or having to turn on a flash in a dark room. It’s very likely that experienced photographers will also more likely remember these kinds of premeditated shots that required more time and skill. That exertion no doubt reflects the psychological importance of the subject to the photographer. You’re only going to spend a lot of energy on a shot that is meaningful to you, so your remembering that photo later on has been charged by two factors: premeditated effort AND the emotional motivation that drove it.

One participant in the study also remembered a “decisive moment” shot. The term, as originally proposed by the famous photojournalist Henri Carter-Bresson, refers to photos that weren’t planned or taken for a specific conscious purpose. Instead, they are shots taken spontaneously of something that suddenly catches the attention of the photographer. It is a moment when the visual and emotional elements of a scene spontaneously - and only briefly - come together in perfect resonance. People often feel that they have succeeded in capturing the fleeting instant that is the visual and psychological essence of the scene before them.

In the case of this participant, a glimpse of a fountain through some trees caught his eye. The movement of the water at that moment contrasted strongly with the stillness around it. The shot he quickly took reminded him of his hopes to stand out in his applications to graduate schools, just as the fountain stood out from its surroundings.

Such photos are remembered due to the excitement, meaning, and emotion embedded in the picture. While some of the meanings and emotions might be conscious for the person, others might be unconscious. In fact, those unconscious feelings probably motivated the spontaneous action to take the shot.

Memory is Complex

Many decades of research in psychology have shown that memory is a very complex mental activity – far too complex to summarize here. Concerning what photos we remember or forget, there are a variety of questions to consider that were not specifically addressed in the study we conducted. For example…

- Does skill level and experience as a photographer affect one’s memory of a shoot?

- Might there be differences in recalled versus forgotten images among various types of photography, for example: street, nature, event, portrait, and therapeutic photography?

- Does your personality style and life experiences influence what you remember and what you forget? (e.g., differences in stress, busyness, introspectiveness, the ability to concentrate, or the tendency to repress feelings)

- Is the order in which people remember photos from a shoot significant?

- Does the “instructional set” for a shoot affect one’s memory of it – e.g., “take pictures of anything” versus “take pictures of things that are very emotional for you.”

- How does the ability to review images in camera LCD screens affect what we remember and what we forget.

- How would the recall of photos be affected by the number of shots taken, the amount of time spent on the shoot, and the amount of time between the shoot and when the person is asked to recall the photos (the longer the interval of time, the more life experiences during that interval might affect memory).

Remembering and forgetting is not an either/or phenomenon. We forget, suppress, and repress in varying degrees. The more time you spend reflecting on a shoot, the more you discuss it with other people, and the kinds of practical and psychological questions they ask you about it, might all determine what you will be able to recall.

We might never pinpoint all the factors that determine what shots we remember and which one’s we forget. An image that you fancy for a while in your memory could very well fade away over time. A photo that you didn’t think too much of at first could eventually become fixed in your mind for a lifetime. In both cases, you might never fully understand why.

Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

The psychological impact of image streams
Johari's window
Mindfulness in photography

The psychologically beneficial aspects of photography, by Adam Natoli (pdf)

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche