Remembering photographs

Nathalie Vissers

Someone sits in a room and looks at photographs. What kind of photographs? ‘A highly variegated collection of competent snapshots’. The person isn’t looking at only a few photographs, but up to 2000 a day. Every photograph is looked at shortly, five seconds to be precise.

If this set-up wasn’t coming from a 1973 research article on visual memory [i], it might have been a description of a person in our current times, checking his or her social media feed. We are living in a time in which we can (and do) interact with a wealth of photographs each day, each scanned shortly before moving on to the next one.

How much time do you spend looking at photographs online? How many photographs that you encountered some days ago can you still remember? Could you distinguish between one of these ‘old’ photos and a photo you never saw before?

According to the study in 1973, you could. The researcher concluded that our capacity for the recognition of pictures was almost limitless. As a side comment, at the end of the paper, it was also shortly stated that those participants who had to watch 10.000 items over five days, found the cumulative effect to be ‘extremely gruelling and unpleasant’. Do you feel the same after too much Instagram or Facebook?

Not all photographs are equal, though. People seem to remember some photographs consistently better than others [ii]. There must be something in some photographs that makes us remember them better than others. What that ‘something’ is, is not clear. Researchers are searching for those golden characteristics. What kind of photographs are remembered better and, based on that, could we even train a computer to select the most memorable images?

Not only researchers are in a quest to find the most memorable photographs. Photographers are on this same quest when making or editing their photographs. ‘I strive for individual pictures that will burn in people’s memories’ Steve McCurry said.

So, which photographs are memorable? Or more concretely, which Belgian art photographs are most memorable? Wouldn’t that make for a good blog article for Democratic Jungle? I decided to try it out on myself: What photographs could I find in my own memory?

Belgian art photographs, Belgian art photographs, … my mind went. I quickly realised that actively recalling photographs is much more difficult than the passive forced-choice tasks used in psychology experiments. Instead, bringing up photographs seemed to require a detour. In order for photographs to pop up in my brain, I had to recall other experiences first. I went over Belgian photographers that I met in workshops and exhibitions I had seen. Only after recalling these persons or contexts, some photographs emerged.

Isn’t this an interesting tip for the beginning photographer? Make sure that people not only see your work, but that they can connect it to something else: a conversation they had with you, a workshop you followed together, a concept or story that was told about your photographs. Not only make your work memorable, make yourself memorable too.

If this article so far sounded too vague for you, let’s make it more concrete. Here are five Belgian art photographs that live somewhere in my memory. Maybe, they will find their way to your memory too.

Jan Rosseel – Belgian Autumn

The first masterclass I followed was BredaPhoto’s masterclass of 2016. Even though I travelled all the way to our neighbouring country, I ended up with a Belgian artist as a teacher: Jan Rosseel. The photograph that I connect to him is one of his project ‘Belgian Autumn. A Confabulated History’  focusing on a dark page in Belgian history, the violent robberies by the ‘Bende van Nijvel’ (Gang of Nivelles) between 1982 and 1985 and the investigations following this (but never catching the criminals).

The specific photograph shows a person wearing a caricature mask, in front of a black background. I remember the gist, but not the details. Was he facing left or right, I am unsure. He was wearing something black, I believe.

© Jan Rosseel, from the project: Belgian Autumn. A Confabulated History.


Matthieu Litt – Horsehead Nebula

Following my mind’s trace about photography workshops, Matthieu Litt popped up. Both Belgians, we first met in Latvia, during the International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) 2016. The image connected to him is from his series ‘Horsehead Nebula’, a photograph from a statue representing a horsehead, facing downwards. Somewhere in a faraway country, I remember that from the general summary of his project. The rest of the details are fuzzy in my head. Was the statue on some kind of roundabout? Was the horsehead yellow or golden?

© Matthieu Litt, from the project: Horsehead Nebula


Katlijn Blanchaert – Sauvage

Another photographer now springs to mind: Katlijn Blanchaert. We shared some nervousness before having to pitch our projects at ‘De Donkere Kamer’ in Gent. Interestingly, the horsehead and mask theme turn up again. A new memorable image, now in a very different way. I remember an almost naked man (turns out my memory made the photograph somewhat more decent, because he seems to be fully naked after all), sitting on his knees, wearing a horse mask. The photograph was bathing in blue light. Was he sitting on the ground? On a bed?

© Katlijn Blanchaert, from the project: Sauvage


Zoë Parton – Sofie.

Some stories are memorable and unfortunately, these aren’t always the happy stories. In the group exhibition of TWENS 2016, I heard about the loss that photographer Zoë Parton (and her family) had faced when the sister of the photographer died in an accident years ago. The name of the sister was Sofie, it is stuck in my mind. Trying to recall the photographs, I remember a poetic kind of darkness. I can’t exactly recall how the photographs looked, but I do remember a dark seascape.

© Zoë Parton, from the project: Sofie.


Lara Gasparotto – Rivages

Last but not least, ‘Rivages’ by Lara Gasparotto was the first photobook by a Belgian photographer I ever purchased. The image tied to this comes to me through a colour: a sensuous red. The image itself is a girl with bare shoulders with her back towards the camera but her face looking back, at the photographer, a mysterious look.

© Lara Gasparotto, from the project ‘Rivages’


Why do I remember these photographs and not others?

After recalling these specific artists, the photographs outlined here showed up in my mind immediately. Only later, some other photographs emerged. There must be something in these photographs that makes them stick to my mind.

Is it because I have seen them more often? Some of the photographs played a central role in the respective projects, being put on invitations of exhibitions or being the representative photograph of the whole work. Do I remember them better because they have that status or do they have that status because they are so memorable? Other photographs must be memorable because of their distinctiveness or was it the way they made me feel uncomfortable or another emotional value tied to them? Still others mainly got to me through a certain colour.

Interestingly, the photographs are represented in some way in my head, but I can’t actively recall all their details. How do these photographs look in my head? If the details aren’t saved, then what is? Some essential characteristics? A summary that is impossible to put into words?

Aren’t these undetailed photographs, saved in other people’s memories, the ultimate end result of a photographer’s efforts? An image that keeps on living in someone else’s head and pops up in consciousness once in a while, triggered by an experience, a photographer’s name, a story, an emotion or the question to write a blog post on Belgian art photography. 

[i] Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10,000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.

[ii] Isola, P., Xiao, J., Parikh, D., Torralba, A., & Oliva, A. (2014). What makes a photograph memorable? IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, 36(7), 1469-1482.