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What We Learned This Week: How We Remember Photos Now

By David Schonauer   Thursday January 10, 2019


Some photos are memorable. Some are not.

But why?

This week we spotlighted two stories explaining how we remember photographs now — and how photography today may be changing our memories. On Monday we took note of an essay at The Conversation by University of Oregon journalism professor Nicole Smith Dahmen, who with two associates developed a model to help predict when and how certain images may become widely known in the modern digital culture.

“Estimates suggest that more than 1 trillion photos were taken in 2018. With so many in circulation, it’s difficult for any single photo to capture our attention and become a famed iconic image,” noted Dahmen. Once, she explained, news photographs became iconic largely because they appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Today consumers are bombarded with images. Yet some stand out. Dahmen’s model shows that certain characteristics of an image – such as its timeliness, its cultural resonance, its political potency or its likelihood of being turned into a meme – can influence its rise and reach.

“While these images don’t typically endure to become truly historic, they nonetheless help citizens navigate and understand complex events,” she noted. Among the photographs she points to as examples: Getty photographer John Moore’s image of a 2-year-old Honduran girl in a pink shirt sobbing as U.S. Border Patrol agents searched her mother (at top).  The viral image, noted Dahmen, turned the girl into “the face of [President Donald] Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ family separation policy.”

Likewise, Reuters photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon’s photo of a mother and her twin daughters fleeing tear gas at the border wall between the U.S. and Tijuana, Mexico (below) “effectively contradicted Trump’s narrative that refugees were dangerous,” noted Dahmen, adding that some observers compared the photo to photographer Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 image of a Vietnamese girl screaming after a napalm attack.

On Wednesday, we featured a video from Wired magazine Senior Editor Peter Rubin exploring the effects of today’s culture of ubiquitous pictures taking on our memories and our mental states. Among the takeaways: Selfies distort our perceptions or ourselves. Rubin cites a study published last year showing that selfies captured at a distance of 1 foot make one’s nose look 30 percent bigger than it would in a photo taken from farther away. In fact, he notes, selfies are causing more and more people to seek certain plastic surgery procedures.

Taking pictures can also affect our memories of events — such as a restaurant meal or music concert — that aren’t primarily visual experiences, noted Rubin. However, when you participate in an experience that is primarily visual — viewing a landscape, for instance — taking pictures can make you feel more involved in the moment.

Rubin’s video comes as the modern world of digital communication — including the effects of social media on the political process and the ability to create fake pictures — comes under increased scrutiny, we noted.

Here are some of the other photo stories we spotlighted this week:
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1. Rohingya Babies Born with Nowhere to Go

Rohingya children from Myanmar born in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh start life in a legal limbo, not considered Bangladeshi or Burmese by birth, noted National Geographic, which featured Bangladeshi photographer Turjoy Chowdhury’s series “Born Refugee” — portraits of infants without a home. “The impact of being stateless creates great uncertainty for the future of Rohingya children,” said UNICEF spokesman Karen Reidy. “ “A borderless world—this is what the project is all about,” Chowdhury added.


2. An Intimate Exploration of a Queer Love Story

“Love is a cliché. It’s an idea so easy to imagine but impossible to grasp. Like an overripe fruit, it collapses with a bit of pressure into cloying sweetness and the faint sense of something lost. But, it is also our most essential endeavor.” So write photographer Jake Naughton and his partner Juan Anibal Sosa Iglesias at the Kickstarter page for their photo book “When We Were Strangers.” “Jake and Juan emphasize that while there are countless books about straight relationships, there is “a dearth of books about queer love,” noted The New York Times.


3. A Pioneering Photographer's Legacy In Algae

In a gallery of the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the life of one of the earliest woman photographers is reassembled. “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins” (through Feb. 17) features cyanotypes of algae specimens created by the pioneering photographer: Atkins’s 1843 “Photographs of British Algae,” a botanical monograph, is now recognized as the first book illustrated with photography. Her legacy was eclipsed by others, including William Henry Fox Talbot, noted Hyperallergic.


4. Gabriel Figueroa and the Knotty the Aesthetics of the Female Body

Gabriel Figueroa's series "Nodum" matches the landscapes of the female body with the desert landscape of Cuatro Cienegas in the State of Coahuila northen Mexico — one of the few places in the world, Figueroa told us, to have gypsum dunes, warm pools in the middle of the desert and a marble quarry. The work was also inspired and influenced by pre-Raphaelite paintings and the Japanese art of rope binding called shibari. The series was named a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 7 competition.


5. Ice Crystals Formed in Ephemeral Spheres

Corn syrup, dish detergent, and water are the ingredients of Ontario-based nature photographer Don Komarechka’s film “Winter’s Magic,” noted Colossal. Komarechka blew his syrup-detergent-and-water mixture into bubbles on snow, then recorded the frosty shapes that resulted. His video features the best clips from over 400 takes that were originally shot for the BBC’s Forces of Nature documentary series. Komarechka explains the process and the technical aspects of the project on YouTube.

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