Ways of Remembering


Berger, John. ‘Ways of Remembering’ The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography ed. by Jessica Evans (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997) 42-51 [originally published in 1978]


[After Sontag] A photograph is similar to a footprint or a deathmask. It is a trace of a set of instant appearances.

The camera, like the eye, records appearances through the mediation of light. But the camera, unlike the eye, fixes the set of appearances which it records.  It preserves those appearances from the supercession of other appearances.

What the camera does is record a set of appearances and, in so far as it does that, it is like memory.

Memory preserves an event from being covered and therefore hidden by the events that come after it. It holds a single event. So does the camera.


The photograph offers a set of appearances prised away from their context and therefore from their meaning, because meaning is always a question of process – meaning lies in narrative, meaning is born out of development and process. If you stop that process, and take a set of images out of their context, they are prised away from their meaning.

There is something about every photograph which is intimate. It’s bound to be so because it goes in, it isolates and it frames. You are always in a situation of intimacy towards what has been photographed.


[having replaced god and judgement, photography…] It is an eye which records in order to forget.

How is it possible to use photography so that it doesn’t function like the eye of a totally estranged God?


In the private use of photography, the photograph does not lend itself to any use, it does not become a completely value-free object because the use reconstitutes the continuity from which it was taken. Maybe one has to consider how the private use of photography could be extended, could be enlarged so that it might cease to be private and become public.


[On Steichen’s The Family of Man] And so the exhibition as a whole, was eveasive and sentimental although many of the images in it were not. Yet Steichen’s intuition was not wrong. If the camera is not to be used as if it were the eye of a totally estranged God, we can say that photography awaits a world historical consciousness which has yet to be achieved.

It awaits a social memory which will transcend the distinction between public and private.

Normally photographs are used in a very unilinear way – they are used to ilustrate an argument […] Very frequently they are used tautologically so that the photograph merely repeats what is being said in words.

Memory is not unilinear at all. Memory works radially, that is to say with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.

If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.


Such a context replaces the photograph in time – not its own original time for that is impossible – but in narrated time. Narrated time becomes historic time when it is assumed by social memory and social action. The constructed narrated time needs to respect the process of memory which it hopes to stimulate.

There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for a printed photograph, that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches.

A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.

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