Emotion, Memory, Photography


Group activity, For Future Reference, Kelvin Lau (2015

By Penelope Lee, CHE Education and Outreach Office, The University of Melbourne 

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.[1]

Emotions lie within a photograph in multiple guises. Through the act of looking and thinking about the captured image and its story, as well as the context of making, its scale, palette and materiality, we can perceive the photographer’s attempt to evoke a particular affect, mood or emotion both within an artwork and for the viewer — whether it be subdued, painful, joyful or humorous. For those of us who are lover of photography, emotions can be experienced merely by sitting with a work and acknowledging the feelings that are aroused, perhaps for no apparent reason. In addition to the photograph itself, the life of the creator can also offer a route to exploring emotions for the audience – for example, imagining how context and experiences shaped the photographer’s emotions at the time of creation and how this may have influenced the development of the work.

Making and viewing photographs can be an engrossing and informative experience, as well as a flexible and powerful way of interrogating emotions in a non-linear and, for young people in particular, non-confrontational manner. For that reason, photography has been an intermittent focus of the Education and Outreach work I have undertaken at the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

The purpose of the Education and Outreach program is to promote an understanding and awareness of CHE research and broaden its impact through the delivery of educational, training and outreach programs to schools, community groups, professionals and the general public. One of its core aims is to enable participants to consider how emotions are identified, described, represented, expressed and understood, both in the past and in the present.

Through the Centre’s ‘Shaping the Modern’ program, the Education and Outreach team in Melbourne has been able to foster a creative relationship where the worlds of photography and the history of emotions intersect. Since 2013, we have been collaborating with the Centre for Contemporary Photography  in Melbourne’s inner city. Over the past three years we have built an exceptionally fruitful relationship where our common themes of emotions, memory and history have been explored across disciplines and in the public realm.

Starting in 2013 with David Rosetsky’s national touring exhibition, ‘True Self’, Stephanie Trigg’s Global Faces: Emotions, Cultures, Histories research project found a contemporary platform. Through a series of interdisciplinary public forums, floor talks and an ekphrastic[2] workshop, the face, central to Rosetsky’s artwork, was examined as a vehicle for mediating human emotions and expression, subjectivity and identity. An educational resource that addressed the Visual Arts, English and Psychology school curricula across Australia also provided teachers of middle and upper secondary students with a means to engage more deeply with the themes of the exhibition.

Explore the ‘True Self’ educational resource.

As part of the 2014 International Melbourne Arts Festival, CHE and CCP worked together to deliver a successful program that accompanied an exhibition of works by American photographer Vivian Maier. While Maier left behind an extraordinary body and volume of work, predominantly self-portraits, very little is known about her creative intentions or relationships with her subject matter. As such, the exhibition invited audiences to examine issues of identity, self-representation and ethics through their own interdisciplinary frameworks. The public forums were well attended and attracted broad audiences, especially a session on ‘How the selfie performs across time and place’. However, it was in sessions working alongside Australian Indigenous artist Bindi Cole that we really fostered a meaningful exchange between the Centre and a particular target audience: marginalised young people who lived or accessed services in the City of Yarra. Young people from 15–22 years of age were referred from local youth and mental health agencies Artful Dodgers and headspace, Collingwood, and from Collingwood College. With a strong belief in the efficacy of photography as a mode of expression and as an opportunity to acquire skills, confidence and connection, three workshops explored the issues of self-identity and representation, mood and emotions, and visualising the affective landscape. Portraiture and self-portraiture proved to be a natural fit for the young participants who were unaccustomed to identifying, let alone sharing, their emotions. These personal modes helped them to tell their stories and examine their emotions in relation to emotions of the past.

In 2015 the exhibition ‘For Future Reference’, curated by Pippa Milne, aligned beautifully with Chief Investigator Stephanie Trigg’s ‘Victorian Bluestone’ project and Chief Investigator Jane Davidson’s ‘Music, Memory and Emotion’ project. Tracking the slipperiness of memory and the way that image-based representations can both monumentalise and subvert memory, it provided a stimulus for their research and that of the Centre’s ‘Objects and Emotions’ research cluster. Over two evenings an artist, conservator, curator and two neuro-psychologists, along with Stephanie Trigg and Jane Davidson, actively participated in interdisciplinary discussions under the banner of ‘Memory: sound, site and object from the position of theory, practice and the emotions’.

Listen to recordings of panel discussions recorded at the Centre for Contemporary Photography on Memory: sound, site and object through theory, practice and the emotions Week 1 & Week 2.

Also affiliated with the exhibition was a six-week program of ‘Exploring Emotion and Memory through Photography’. Building on the success of the previous year, the Centre worked in partnership with headspace and CCP to deliver an experiential program that explored the complexity of how memories and emotions were thought and felt, and how they functioned, in the past and the present. Central questions we addressed were:

  • How do we reconstruct memory, and can we trust it?
  • How do emotions shift over time, and how do they influence our memories or reconstruction of the past?
  • Is photography the ultimate objective and reality record of an emotion, feeling and experience in time?

The young participants engaged and re-engaged creatively with the world around them by participating in a series of artistic activities, presentations, technical lessons and discussions. Each was provided with a camera by CCP to take home. This enabled them to scrutinise and reflect on their own affective responses to memory and emotions by reconnecting with spaces and places that were important to them, and with personal mementos of remembrance, love and affection in intimate and safe ways.

Collectively, we decided to create a publication with a selection of photographic works. Funded by the City of Yarra, the catalogue represents the group’s combined effort, with each participant contributing words and pictures. Aligning with the work of Australian photographer Ansel Adams, the group reinforced the notion that ‘A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed’.[3] 

Click to view the headspace exhibition catalogue.

So here we are at the start of 2016. I am enthusiastically awaiting my meeting with CCP Director and curator Naomi Cass to discuss our next collaboration and identify new links and opportunities that can utilise the Centre’s research. Like any good partnership built over time, CCP and CHE have a certain understanding now and a willingness to learn from each other. Many aspects of our steady relationship have been rewarding and some immeasurable. From my perspective as an EOO, I have seen the work of CHE reach new audiences and its research disseminated amongst enthusiastic recipients at the coalface. I also have seen CHE academics draw on the expertise of practitioners and professionals in industries they have met along the way, informing their research and sharpening their focus. But for me, personally, working with young people alongside my co-facilitators from headspace Collingwood and CCP has been strengthening. It has been an opportunity for CHE to have a direct impact on the lives of young people.

Penelope Lee focuses on promoting an awareness and understanding of the CHE’s research to the wider community by identifying collaborative opportunities within and beyond the University of Melbourne, and establishing relationships with educational and cultural sectors. 

[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), p. 15.

[2] An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. http://www.poetryfoundation.org

[3] Ansel Adams, The Camera, The Ansel Adams Photographic Series 1 (Little, Brown and Company, 1980)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s