05.30.16
Jessica Helfand | Essays

On Memory


Intestine
, Jessica Helfand, 2015. The gut is host to a complex community of microorganisms—the microbiome—where intestinal bacteria have a direct correlation to brain activity including mind, mood, and memory.


Following the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/11, the decision about whether or not to publish the photo of a falling man—graceful, upside down, unthinkably tragic—was handled in many cases completely differently outside the United States, where varied political, cultural, and religious positions framed a range of media perspectives. (Too close to home? Too far from home?) Efforts toward what the American theorist W. J. T. Mitchell would later refer to as “image amnesty” (literally, a call to forget) were—indeed, are—equally far-ranging, reminding us that pictures do not only speak louder than words but also are more likely to be remembered, simply because they are so impossible to forget. While the decisions whether or not to publish such disturbing images may be determined by representatives of the media, these images are consumed by a public fully capable of an entire range of emotional responses, and one of them is that we are each entitled to remember what we choose to remember.

True, there is no scientific method for anticipating the “right” reaction to something so horrific, but to deny its existence is equally, if not more, vexing. That the same essential questions plagued the media after the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1944, or following the Islamic State beheadings in 2014, or any of a thousand times in between, does not make seeing these images any less confusing or any more comprehensible.

But when images are distributed through public media, at least we know what we’re looking at. With the advent of citizen journalism, viral video, and blogging, this territory grows even murkier: truth telling, factual evidence, and reality itself are not so easy to identify, let alone assess. Where news media picture desks once ascertained credit and fact, today the free-form taking and sharing of casual pictures demands no such protocol. Thus the caption, if any, secedes from the image; the now decontextualized image floats about, unmoored from fact; and people remember what they choose or care to remember. (Or don’t.) It is one thing if a picture is from your high school graduation, quite another if it has to do with 9/11 or the Ebola virus or the aftermath of a crazed gunman. Human memory is more than just fallible: it’s intangible, difficult to pinpoint, virtually impossible to control.

Meanwhile, images—at turns cryptic and expository—engage our minds in ways both wonderful and weird. We take and make them, seek and share them, upload and publish them, distort and freeze-frame them. We see ourselves reflected in them and become, in a sense, callous to their impact, inured by their ubiquity. Indeed, we are all visual communicators now: even Seung-Hui Cho chose to tell his story through pictures. Mercifully, responsible news professionals remind us that veracity is a core journalistic value: words and pictures don’t tell just any story, they tell the story—the real, raw, newly minted facts that need to be told. In this view, pictures of a gun-flinging madman may indeed have their place. But to the untold scores of people whose lives have been forever scarred by a senseless, incalculable human loss, such pictures are gratuitous and terrifying and mean, no matter how big or small or nicely cropped and aligned to a left-hand corner. Design cannot fix this. And it never will.

Jessica Helfand's book Design: The Invention of Desire, was published on May 24 by Yale University Press. It is available on Amazon. Signed copies are available through the Design Observer Shop.

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