Remembering photographs

Nathalie Vissers

Someone sits in a room and looks at photographs. What kind of photographs? ‘A highly variegated collection of competent snapshots’. The person isn’t looking at only a few photographs, but up to 2000 a day. Every photograph is looked at shortly, five seconds to be precise.

If this set-up wasn’t coming from a 1973 research article on visual memory [i], it might have been a description of a person in our current times, checking his or her social media feed. We are living in a time in which we can (and do) interact with a wealth of photographs each day, each scanned shortly before moving on to the next one.

How much time do you spend looking at photographs online? How many photographs that you encountered some days ago can you still remember? Could you distinguish between one of these ‘old’ photos and a photo you never saw before?

According to the study in 1973, you could. The researcher concluded that our capacity for the recognition of pictures was almost limitless. As a side comment, at the end of the paper, it was also shortly stated that those participants who had to watch 10.000 items over five days, found the cumulative effect to be ‘extremely gruelling and unpleasant’. Do you feel the same after too much Instagram or Facebook?

Not all photographs are equal, though. People seem to remember some photographs consistently better than others [ii]. There must be something in some photographs that makes us remember them better than others. What that ‘something’ is, is not clear. Researchers are searching for those golden characteristics. What kind of photographs are remembered better and, based on that, could we even train a computer to select the most memorable images?

Not only researchers are in a quest to find the most memorable photographs. Photographers are on this same quest when making or editing their photographs. ‘I strive for individual pictures that will burn in people’s memories’ Steve McCurry said.

So, which photographs are memorable? Or more concretely, which Belgian art photographs are most memorable? Wouldn’t that make for a good blog article for Democratic Jungle? I decided to try it out on myself: What photographs could I find in my own memory?

Belgian art photographs, Belgian art photographs, … my mind went. I quickly realised that actively recalling photographs is much more difficult than the passive forced-choice tasks used in psychology experiments. Instead, bringing up photographs seemed to require a detour. In order for photographs to pop up in my brain, I had to recall other experiences first. I went over Belgian photographers that I met in workshops and exhibitions I had seen. Only after recalling these persons or contexts, some photographs emerged.

Isn’t this an interesting tip for the beginning photographer? Make sure that people not only see your work, but that they can connect it to something else: a conversation they had with you, a workshop you followed together, a concept or story that was told about your photographs. Not only make your work memorable, make yourself memorable too.

If this article so far sounded too vague for you, let’s make it more concrete. Here are five Belgian art photographs that live somewhere in my memory. Maybe, they will find their way to your memory too.

Jan Rosseel – Belgian Autumn

The first masterclass I followed was BredaPhoto’s masterclass of 2016. Even though I travelled all the way to our neighbouring country, I ended up with a Belgian artist as a teacher: Jan Rosseel. The photograph that I connect to him is one of his project ‘Belgian Autumn. A Confabulated History’  focusing on a dark page in Belgian history, the violent robberies by the ‘Bende van Nijvel’ (Gang of Nivelles) between 1982 and 1985 and the investigations following this (but never catching the criminals).

The specific photograph shows a person wearing a caricature mask, in front of a black background. I remember the gist, but not the details. Was he facing left or right, I am unsure. He was wearing something black, I believe.

© Jan Rosseel, from the project: Belgian Autumn. A Confabulated History.


Matthieu Litt – Horsehead Nebula

Following my mind’s trace about photography workshops, Matthieu Litt popped up. Both Belgians, we first met in Latvia, during the International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) 2016. The image connected to him is from his series ‘Horsehead Nebula’, a photograph from a statue representing a horsehead, facing downwards. Somewhere in a faraway country, I remember that from the general summary of his project. The rest of the details are fuzzy in my head. Was the statue on some kind of roundabout? Was the horsehead yellow or golden?

© Matthieu Litt, from the project: Horsehead Nebula


Katlijn Blanchaert – Sauvage

Another photographer now springs to mind: Katlijn Blanchaert. We shared some nervousness before having to pitch our projects at ‘De Donkere Kamer’ in Gent. Interestingly, the horsehead and mask theme turn up again. A new memorable image, now in a very different way. I remember an almost naked man (turns out my memory made the photograph somewhat more decent, because he seems to be fully naked after all), sitting on his knees, wearing a horse mask. The photograph was bathing in blue light. Was he sitting on the ground? On a bed?

© Katlijn Blanchaert, from the project: Sauvage


Zoë Parton – Sofie.

Some stories are memorable and unfortunately, these aren’t always the happy stories. In the group exhibition of TWENS 2016, I heard about the loss that photographer Zoë Parton (and her family) had faced when the sister of the photographer died in an accident years ago. The name of the sister was Sofie, it is stuck in my mind. Trying to recall the photographs, I remember a poetic kind of darkness. I can’t exactly recall how the photographs looked, but I do remember a dark seascape.

© Zoë Parton, from the project: Sofie.


Lara Gasparotto – Rivages

Last but not least, ‘Rivages’ by Lara Gasparotto was the first photobook by a Belgian photographer I ever purchased. The image tied to this comes to me through a colour: a sensuous red. The image itself is a girl with bare shoulders with her back towards the camera but her face looking back, at the photographer, a mysterious look.

© Lara Gasparotto, from the project ‘Rivages’


Why do I remember these photographs and not others?

After recalling these specific artists, the photographs outlined here showed up in my mind immediately. Only later, some other photographs emerged. There must be something in these photographs that makes them stick to my mind.

Is it because I have seen them more often? Some of the photographs played a central role in the respective projects, being put on invitations of exhibitions or being the representative photograph of the whole work. Do I remember them better because they have that status or do they have that status because they are so memorable? Other photographs must be memorable because of their distinctiveness or was it the way they made me feel uncomfortable or another emotional value tied to them? Still others mainly got to me through a certain colour.

Interestingly, the photographs are represented in some way in my head, but I can’t actively recall all their details. How do these photographs look in my head? If the details aren’t saved, then what is? Some essential characteristics? A summary that is impossible to put into words?

Aren’t these undetailed photographs, saved in other people’s memories, the ultimate end result of a photographer’s efforts? An image that keeps on living in someone else’s head and pops up in consciousness once in a while, triggered by an experience, a photographer’s name, a story, an emotion or the question to write a blog post on Belgian art photography. 

[i] Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10,000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.

[ii] Isola, P., Xiao, J., Parikh, D., Torralba, A., & Oliva, A. (2014). What makes a photograph memorable? IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, 36(7), 1469-1482.

Six hundred photographs – One visual adventure

Nathalie Vissers

‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ by David Claerbout

We blink 15-20 times per minute. Our eyes make 2 to 4 quick movements per second. Light that does manage to get in reaches its destination – light-sensitive cells in the back of the eye – only after travelling through layers of other cells. The array of light-sensitive cells is essentially a flat sheet, a blind spot exists and only the part we focus on is coded in detail. Still, our brains manage, continuously and seemingly automatically, to work with this information and give us an impression of a stable, coherent, three-dimensional and meaningful world. Visual perception is not perfect. A perfect illusion, maybe.

A photographer looks through his viewfinder. Boys and men playing football, a Mediterranean setting, a guy lights up his cigarette, the sea behind the roofs of houses, seagulls flying over. Then, one of the men raises his hand with a piece of food – is it bread? – a seagull dives down and approaches the hand, a moment between man and bird.

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Fotomuseum Antwerp

Click – a fraction of a second, that’s all it takes. The decisive moment is captured. The photographer took control of time and froze the moment. He didn’t dream it, it wasn’t an illusion, it is there – black on white – the man feeding the bird. Photography at its best – freezing time. Photography at its worst too – leaving out so much information surrounding that one decisive moment. The surrounding context that has the capacity to enhance the meaning of that one moment: The smiling face of a young boy looking at the scene from the side line – his laugh captured for infinity; the goalkeeper, leaning with one hand at the pole – his actions ceased by the short interruption; the man lighting up his cigarette. Photography is not perfect. A perfect illusion, maybe.

Can we ever fully grasp a moment, through our eyes or a camera, given that both are imperfect and new situations are unfolding every fraction of a second? We cannot see front and back of a situation at once. Once we move our body or eyes – to get more information – the moment is already gone and something slightly different takes its place. We cannot see front and back of the same situation; we cannot see front and back of a photograph.

That day, we paid our entrance free, walked upstairs and sat down – on a bench, in front of a large screen. Photograph of man feeding bird projected largely in front of us. Our imperfect eyes watched the incompletely captured moment.

Suddenly, another photograph is projected. We now see the smile on the young boy’s face, sitting by the side, watching that decisive moment. And another photograph, the man lighting up his cigarette. And another, the goalkeeper, leaning and waiting. New photographs, new context about that same fraction of a second. Time is frozen, the moment now infinite. Our eyes are free to wander into the photograph and explore the situation AND its context.

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Project Arts Centre Dublin 2015 (photo Ros Kavanagh)

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Project Arts Centre Dublin 2015 (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Free? Not completely, we are guided by the artist. He has chosen which aspects we will see – out of the 50.000 shots, he carefully selected 600 photographs – and in what order to show them.  A seagull, an overview of the scene, a detail in the back, a view from another side, the artist is guiding our eyes – and thereby also our attention.

27.2 seconds, that is the average time people spend looking at a piece of art [i]. Quickly extracting the meaning of the work – then moving on to the next one. We wouldn’t want to miss anything on our trip to the museum.

Here, we stay seated – for 37 minutes – watching a situation of a fraction of a second through 600 photographs. The artist hijacked our attention by feeding us the situation frame by frame, adding more nuance as we spent more time with the work. Every new insight into the moment satisfies our inherent curiosity. What else is happening? Where is this scene taking place? What was that guy in the back doing? What was going on above, below, left and right?

Which artworks do we find most beautiful? Is it the one that is attuned to our eyes, so that we can fluently perceive it: the prototypical, the familiar, the easy to grasp? Or is it the one that raises challenge, shows us something in a new and different way, forcing us to put effort in understanding what we are seeing?

Can a work of art be both? The simplicity of a beautiful moment, captured at the right time, shown through the familiarity of black- and white photographs. Everyone understands its beauty; our eyes easily grasp the scene. Adding to this, however, the complexity and mystery of the combination of these 600 photographs, projected back to back.  We are seeing the moment in a way we could never have seen it with only our eyes or only one photograph. Time was frozen and we walked in – our brain surprised by the new way of seeing. Our awakened brains now eager to find out more: How did the artist do this? Where were the cameras? We don’t see them in the other photographs. Did they all go off at the same moment. Was the moment choreographed? Was this the only moment photographed this way? Was something manipulated? Were we manipulated? The seemingly simple was complex after all.

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’

Do I even want to know the answers? I am not sure. Maybe I like the work better without knowing all the details of its origins. Wonder might be the most central aesthetic emotion [ii]. And those 37 minutes with ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ by David Claerbout certainly made me wonder.

The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment by artist David Claerbout was recently on show in the exhibition ‘The still point of the turning world – between film and photography’ of the Fotomuseum Antwerp. It consists of 600 black-and-white photographs of one ‘happy’ moment projected in a 37-minute stereo audio loop. Impressed by the work, and how the artist played with my visual system, I wrote this article.

More info about David Claerbout and his work can be found at:

Single photographs don’t do justice to this work that in its essence is about a temporal sequence of photographs. Below you can see part of the loop playing at mamco Geneva 2015



[i] Smith, J. K., & Smith, L. F. (2001). Spending time on art, 19(2), 229–236. The study examined how long 150 visitors spent looking at six paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[ii] Prinz, J. (2017). Art and wonder. Keynote talk at Visual Science of Art Conference 2017, Berlin