Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The visceral nature of memory

Items I packed, ready to evacuate.

On Thursday 17th October 200 homes were burned in a fierce bushfire close to my home in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia. In the days that followed, the community in which I lived was on "watch and act" or "emergency" alerts, depending on fire behaviour and it's threat to houses. On Wednesday 23rd October the fire threat was seen as dire, and many of the residents of the Blue Mountains evacuated. As I write, water bombing helicopters continue to hover in the valley 5 km away, keeping fires in containment lines, with firefighters deployed on the ground.

Leading up to Wednesday 23rd October, residents were encourage to enact a Bush Fire Survival Plan.
Part of this plan involves making a decision about what to pack, ready to evacuate, and it is this experience that I found moving as well as odd. As a self-confessed "digital adventurer", all my photographs have long been scanned onto an external drive, and many live in the clouds. So too are my devices backed-up routinely - so there is no danger of losing memories or work if my house burned down. Yet as the threat of fire approached I found myself packing the original copies of photographs that I had kept in boxes since scanning; and the thought of leaving them behind was painful and ultimately impossible. Along they came in the boot of the car, along with changes of clothes, hard copies of women in firefighting archives, important documents, other personal items and the cats.

A quote from Milan Kundera came to mind (used in another context) that the struggle of man against power is "the struggle of memory against forgetting", and this phrase kept running through my mind as I packed the car in the hours leading up to the emergency call for evacuation, which came at about 2pm that afternoon. Although memory can be digitised - I came to reflect - so too is it visceral and corporeal. I had  recorded my images digitally, and these have great meaning for me. But so too was meaning created in the rituals vested in photographs in a box, that once I sorted and scanned and tied with ribbons, that had since accumulated dust. The boxes were, I came to understand, perhaps unexpectedly a foundation for my sense of self and place, of my struggle against forgetting.

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