Memory & Photographs

There have been several articles in different papers about some research by Linda Henkel and her team at the Psychology department of Fairfield University in Fairfield Connecticut which shows that people who took photographs of objects remembered less about them the following day than those who simply looked at them.

Her results don’t particularly surprise me, certainly not when I look at how most people take photographs with their phones or see the results on Facebook. It’s usually clear from these images that even if people are pointing a camera in roughly the right direction, they are not thinking about what they are photographing or seeing it clearly. And photographers are not entirely immune; some of the work I see on Demotix or even published in the newspapers gives me the same feeling. Of course we all have off days, and some editors do appear to have an unerring facility for selecting the weakest image of a set (and often then cropping it to destroy whatever visual integrity it might have possessed.)

Her research only tested recall on the following day. My own memory gets regularly tested in various ways about things that happened twenty or thirty or even forty years ago, and if I can look up the photograph the chances of accurate recall without it are remote. Of course that’s a very different thing, but there is a real sense for me that photographs are a large part of my memory.

The feature on her research on Atlantic Cities mentions an important part of her research some other accounts omit. When Henkel asked people to zoom in on and photograph the details of the museum objects that were the subject of the study, this actually aided their recall the following day. In other words if people actually thought about what they were photographing, that act became and aid to recall. Good photography always involves looking and thinking.

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