For my final project as part of ENG 705, I have produced a brief photo essay focused on cultural and collective memory as it relates to social media, specifically Instagram. Through creating a pair of digital collages, I intend to question how the progression of digital photo sharing technologies like Instagram, a platform focused almost entirely on the reproduction and sharing of images, have become inextricable from our collective ability to remember when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I elaborate on my own creative practice in making these collages, I will also contextualize my work in the broader context of research into collective remembering, social media and the visual culture of the pandemic.
For the above collage, as well as those seen below, I kept the process of digitally cobbling together several screenshots of various Instagram walls relatively simple. The process primarily took place on my phone as I collaged each image in such a way as to obscure most details but keep the impression of each individual image intact. The use of the phone as the sole apparatus for creating these collages was also essential, as our phones have become the defining means of interaction.
As we have passed over the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 sweeping across the globe, much of the past 14 months has seen us collectively retreat to images as a means of communicating. On Instagram, we have increasingly displayed our own COVID related anxieties and exhaustion and witnessed others. Where we once relied on social media as a crude replacement for reality, it has now in many ways become our sole shared reality. With little to no in-person interaction since last spring, images have now become perhaps the central means of communicating between each other. With the collages I have created as part of this project, I hoped to create a sense of how this will impact our own memories of the pandemic itself. In each collage, individual moments become smeared and hazy, as other images overlap and obscure each other. Dimensionally, I hoped to invoke the narrow screen of a smartphone, the site of where these memories are stored and cultivated. The grid pattern which is used to represent a person’s collective photo gallery over time also functions as a way of creating a narrative: by situating photos on a linear pattern, we can create story. By overlaying multiple grids over each other, these narratives as well become ill-defined and inextinguishable form one another. Their presentation as digital collages also speaks to how so much of our collective experience of the pandemic has been rendered through digital photo sharing technologies which themselves have mediated our experiences in a feedback loop, harkening to the musical experiments of ambient musician William Basinski. As their core, these collages are meant to mirror and invoke our own fractured and circuitous ways of remembering.
There has been a wealth of research within the realm of memory studies into how social media hinders its users ability to form and retain new memories. For instance, one 2013 study found that students who took photos during an art museum visit had far fewer memories of the works compared to students who didn’t, with the researchers concluding that students with cameras relied on the apparatus of the camera to ‘store’ their memories. In a paper titled “Death, Memorialization, and Social Media: A Platform Perspective for Personal Archives,” authors Amelia Acker and Jed R Brubaker write:
“The act of creating and collecting personal archives represents a significant kind of memory practice for individual creators as well as the collecting institutions that steward them. Personal archives document the cultural memory of society in private, individualized ways. Social media, however, turn the flows of individual, personal documentation into transactions between users in a creator’s network, allowing other users to access and add layers of context.” (5)
However, social media is by no means the first or only technology to be used as a substitution for memory, with the printing press being an early tool for the widespread sharing and cataloging of collective memory as well. As early as the 1950s, philosopher Maurice Halbwachs was introducing the idea of “collective memory”, the notion of a group memory that lives outside of the mind of one individual. In his book The Collective Memory Halbwachs illustrates the fundamental difference between history and collective memory.
“History is a record of changes, it is naturally persuaded that societies change constantly, because it focuses on the whole, and hardly a year passes when some part of the whole is not transformed… In contrast, the collective memory is the group seen from within during a period not exceeding, and most often much shorter than, the average duration of a human life. It provides the group a self-portrait that unfolds through time; since it is an image of the past, and allows the group to recognize itself throughout the total succession of images.” (86)
I hoped for this project to intervene in the production of collective memory as Halbwachs describes it above.
By collaging a series of disparate images together, I intended to illustrate the unreliability of memory and how the collective experience of the pandemic has become inextricably merged with the digitization of our individual experiences within it. Only by looking closer and allowing the noise surrounding and obfuscating each memory to bleed into the background can we adequately recognize the importance of every individual moment of the whole.
Acker, Amelia and Jed R. Brubaker. “Death, Memorialization, and Social Media: A Platform Perspective for Personal Archives.” Archivaria, no. 77, 2014, pp. 1 – 23.
Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Harper & Row, 1980
Henkel, Linda. “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 20, 2014, pp. 396 – 402.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.