SYMPOSIUM: Annette Khun

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As quick post to relate back to, here are the parts of the article I would highlight if I could find a pen.

Among the many facets of this work is a quest to extend and deepen understanding of how personal memory operates in the cultural sphere: how personal or individual memory connects with shared, public forms of memory; this article develops and interrogates a set of interlocking memory work methods for investigating the forms and everyday uses of ‘ordinary photography’ and how these figure in the production of memory.

The aim is to seek fresh insights and new ways of conceptualising and understanding the ways in which people’s personal or individual memories relate to, intersect or are continuous with shared, collective, public forms of memory.

In work on cultural memory, the conjectural method involves taking as a starting point instances or cases – expressions of memory of some sort – and then working outwards from them.

Memory work, a mode of inquiry embodying certain methodological assumptions, may be defined as: an active practice of remembering which takes an inquiring attitude towards the past and the activity of its (re)construction through memory. Memory work undercuts assumptions about the transparency or the authenticity of what is remembered, taking it not as ‘truth’ but as evidence of a particular sort: material for interpretation, to be interrogated, mined, for its meanings and its possibilities. Memory work is a conscious and purposeful staging of memory. (Kuhn 2000, 186) 

the task is not to psychoanalyse people but to be helpfully at hand at the birth of new insight and fresh understanding.

In most societies, family photographs have considerable cultural significance, both as repositories of memory and as occasions for performances of memory.

a sort of eye-opening takes place because of this unfamiliar context for, and fresh approach to, something that is very familiar and ordinary and which yet may very well also carry some emotional weight. Second, there is a shared fascination with – and a quest to understand – others’ memory accounts; this has a certain ‘deep’ ethnographic quality about it. This latter aspect becomes particularly apparent where a group is intercultural or multinational in composition.

a combination of memory work and photography brings something entirely distinctive to the methods and findings of cultural memory research. 

I would argue, from the very everydayness of photography – from the ways photography and photographs figure in most people’s daily lives and in the apparently ordinary stories we tell about ourselves and those closest to us (Hirsch 1997). 

the capacity of the still photographic image to ‘freeze’ a moment in time, lends extraordinary impact to an apparently ordinary medium  (Bazin 1971; Barthes 1984).  As commonplace material artefacts, family photographs and albums contain meanings, and also seem infinitely capable of generating new ones at the point at which photography and memory work meet. 

Martha Langford, who works extensively with family photographic albums deposited in museum archives, argues in her book Suspended Conversations that people’s uses of these albums are governed by the same underlying structures as those of the oral tradition – of oral memories and life stories: ‘Our photographic memories are used in a performative oral tradition’ (Langford 2001, viii). Not only do photographs operate as props and prompts in verbal performances of memory, but the collection of photographs that makes up a family album itself also follows an ‘oral structure’: ‘An album is a classic example of a horizontal narrative shot through with lines of both epic and anecdotal dimension’ (Langford 2001, 175). Her findings suggest that even outsiders will weave stories around albums, stories which embody precisely the epic, anecdotal quality that marks the memory text.



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