Lina Vincent: Curator’s Note
Memento (2000) is a psychological mystery thriller directed by Christopher Nolan. It is about a character who suffers from extreme short-term memory loss, a condition termed as anterograde amnesia. The film follows the protagonist as he tracks down the people who attacked him and killed his wife. The fascinating aspect of the story is the way the hero constructs a method to remind himself of his past, through Polaroid photographs and information placed in tattoos. With a memory span of just 15 minutes or so, the challenge to the character is palpable. The film inspired two Indian films – Murugadoss’s Tamil film Ghajini (2005) and an Aamir Khan Bollywood blockbuster of the same name Ghajini (2008). Stories of this nature make one conscious of the complexity, power, and beauty of Memory – it is something we cannot live without, and yet memory is unreliable and ephemeral too; it is constantly morphing, dependent on the external and internal experiences of an individual.
Working on the archival photography project Goa Familia (with Akshay Mahajan, for Serendipity Arts Foundation) over the past three years has forced me to consider the nature of memory and the role it plays in the documentation of alternative and oral histories. The project has been about gathering family histories viewed through the lens of photography. These are personal and community accounts that underlie dominant, conventional records of the past, and therefore present a range of otherwise hidden perspectives. Family lives interpret and reflect social, political, economic, religious, and cultural influences, and much of this is visible in private albums.
We had the opportunity to interview diverse Goan families, with members ranging from nonagenarians to teenagers. From generation to generation, often a single family member becomes the holder of the archive, and it is their task to care for it. Sometimes the lack of an interested family member means the loss of the archives, thrown away or neglected. There is always a ‘memory keeper’ who is key to handing over ancestral memory and stories to future generations, and their passing leaves a void for a time, until someone else takes on the mantle. The nature of memory is such that four persons recollecting the same event may retell it in completely different perspectives. A photograph can bring an element of validation or proof, to substantiate a memory – but it is also true that photographs can be staged, with finely directed configurations of objects and persons that articulate something other than fact.
Photography and film have been central in channelling and preserving memory for over 150 years, enriching and augmenting our knowledge of people, places, and events. As mediums, they have the power to transcend time and space, they also alter and complicate known hierarchies of social interaction by making visible: the presences and absences, and inclusions and exclusions of community life. We are forced to contend with fluctuating meanings of permanence and physicality as related to the fragile nature of paper and negative – and contrast these with the experiences of today’s swipe-click-swipe identity making, instantaneous memories, easy deletion, and act of deliberate forgetting in the virtual era.
On one occasion, we interviewed someone with mild dementia – she was extremely confused with happenings of recent years, and yet viewing old family photos yielded a steady flow of accurate recollections of people and places, of times from her childhood and youth. Dementia was central to the plotline of Remember (2015) a drama-thriller directed by Atom Egoyan and written by Benjamin August, with a strong cast of Christopher Plummer, Bruno Ganz, and Jürgen Prochnow in the lead. Plummer plays a widower struggling with memory loss, and the film follows his experiences as he embarks on a cross-country journey with help from a fellow Holocaust survivor, to find the former Nazi responsible for the deaths of their family members. Such is the dubious quality of memory that it makes him oblivious to his own past reality, with unexpected consequences.
Films and photographs can act as catalysts for memory, nostalgia, and longing. Memories in turn can distort reality; meanings are constantly changing through diverse acts of remembering and forgetting. But then, isn’t the concept of ‘reality’ in itself perpetually debatable?