With Somnia I ask whether it is possible to use the photographic medium to free myself from the burden of memory altogether. And, consequently, also from the need to participate in unmediated reality.

A scan of the human brain remains almost the same whether the subject thinks about the past or the future. Neuroscientists assume that this better equips us to deal with the unknown. The implication being that our memories of that which has already been are as uncertain as our expectations of that which is yet to come.

Owing to the way in which photographs appear to “capture” a slice of time, numerous photographers have addressed the theme of memory in their work - with varying degrees of insight. Yet most treat both photographs and memories as static phenomena; and the act of remembering as passive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Indeed, our memories change over time; typically becoming hazier and less detailed; fusing with other unrelated reminiscences; and gaining culturally-prescribed significance. And just as private memories can become collective, images, too, can lose their individual ownership.

True, photographic memories are perhaps more static than those we carry in our minds, independent of technology. Yet they are by no means stagnant. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, photographs are not born of a “decisive moment.” Rather, they emerge from a process that extends chronologically both backwards and forwards from the moment of capture. It’s this dynamic evolution of image-memories across space, time, and context that forms the conceptual focus of ​Somnia​; a body of work spanning the breadth of photographic techniques, from those we might uncritically describe as “documenting reality;” through staged scenarios; archival or found imagery; and interventions that are perhaps closer to painting.

However, to make a photograph superficially resemble a painting is much easier than replicating the process of its creation; where the final image is the result of countless micro-decisions in the form of brushstrokes. But it is just such a process that forms the backbone of Somnia. In particular I have been influenced by the works of Bada Shanren, a 17th Century Chinese artist-monk known for his disorienting use of juxtaposition, double meanings, and an eschewal of traditional perspective; techniques closely tied to Buddhist ideas of emptiness and worldly illusion.

Ultimately photography is an act of defiance against the irreversible anonymity towards which we all march. Perhaps as a consequence of this, today photographs are produced on an unprecedented scale, constituting a parallel - but no less ​real​ - world of images. Yet most of these will cause little more than a fleeting ripple on the surface of popular culture before sinking to the depths of obscurity.

Who owns our pixels after we die? It’s possible that some of the images we create in our lifetimes will outlive us. But in all likelihood our ownership rights over them will follow us to the grave. And yet, if memory cannot be trusted without the support of “documentary evidence” (i.e. photographs), what might be the effect on my personal memories if I combine my own photographs with this digital detritus? If I repeatedly manipulate the same image-memory, adding consecutive palimpsestic layers over time, how will this impact my recollection of the events depicted? Can this serve as a form of therapy, transforming negative memories into positive ones?

Going a step further, with Somnia I ask whether it is possible to use the photographic medium to free myself from the burden of memory altogether. And, consequently, also from the need to participate in unmediated reality. If I spend all day taking photographs, I become an empty vessel; not only has the camera done memory’s job, but it has also removed me from meaningful lived experience. That being the case, can I still legitimately claim these memories as my own?

Somnia by Wenkai Wang

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