Photos from Ukraine and Spanish Harlem bring back treasures of memory

A recent news photo showed soldiers carrying a pregnant Ukrainian woman on a stretcher. They found her in a bombed out facility. The following week I read that she and her unborn child were dead.

The image of this woman brought me back to another horrible war photo. Taken on June 8, 1972, this photograph is known as the “Napalm Girl”. In it, a naked 9-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, with pain etched on her face, runs away from falling firebombs. The New York Times ran a column with this photo titled “When a Picture is Worth a Thousand Tears.” Kim survived and lives in Toronto.

This photo of Vietnam also reminded me of a fictional play I wrote about that war with its people in the countryside using materials from downed planes to build makeshift huts. I wouldn’t have remembered writing this story if it hadn’t been for the picture of the woman on the stretcher.

That same week, when the memory of the photo from Vietnam resurfaced, I received a startling text with a photo of my high school prom date. There we were, posing for the camera, her a very mature 16 and I, almost 18. Over time, we stayed in touch. And about 20 years ago, my wife and I attended an anniversary get-together for my date’s parents in Escondido, California.

A second photo she sent me was a reminder of our pre-teen years. She was there with her sisters on the fire escape of our four-story apartment building in Spanish Harlem. For us, fire escapes had a purpose other than escaping from burning buildings. In our small, five-room apartments without air conditioning on sweltering summer nights, we thought of fire escapes as heat.

This photo of the fire escape brought up another memory. I hand-delivered a note to my prom date when she was about 12 asking her to be my girlfriend. Immediately afterwards, I supposedly stopped talking to him. I have no memory of being silent.

These photos reminded me of the cliché: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I agree with this saying. Words can movingly frame precious and uplifting moments from our past. But they come right after a one-of-a-kind memory that photos can help us relive.

So I wanted to know more about the relationship between photos and memory. What I read surprised me.

And the pigeons? Do they share a similar ability to humans in the recall game? Yes, they do, according to Dr Daniel Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London. He added: “In studies, they show high levels of recall when presented with different images.” And the images are “useful for finding food”.

I might not have felt so deflated if the doctor had been bragging about the dolphins and elephants up there with a human booster IQ. But the pigeons? Really! It reminded me of the consequences years ago of putting my hand in a nest on a bush near the entrance to our house. What followed was a flock of birds that appeared to group together in an attack formation. They then dove in all directions, deliberately dropping white globs of bird poop around me.

Dr. Glaser went on to say that “an image can trigger buried memory and recall…faster than words.” It certainly makes sense to me. I felt emotional sparks from photos that no words could have ignited.

From Louise Carey, a photographer, I read that “looking at old photos is more relaxing than meditating”. So, after a long day at work, what can we do? Watching a five-hour streaming TV series like we often do? Or for the ultimate in relaxation, browse through old photo albums?

A Daryl Austin, journalist, for major publications, writes that taking pictures can be overkill. He thinks we should try to take fewer photos and spend more time remembering the moment. I see his argument as akin to the warning to stop and smell the flowers.

And Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist known for her work on memory theories, argues that taking too many photos could diminish our ability to retain memories. She says that “if you’re intentional about the photos you take, they can actually help you capture that moment you hope to hold on to.”

I believe I put my heart and soul into all of my photos. Whether it’s a gardener trimming a row of roses, rays of sunlight streaming down behind the treetops, or people with cheek features unique to their faces. If this qualifies as “intentional” photo taking, then that’s me.

Yet other studies suggest that ordinary photos on smartphones can spark joy and love and strengthen memories and relationships. I feel this joy when I see pictures of my grandchildren scrolling through my phone.

What I have learned is that memory treasures from past crossroads can be buried deep in the subconscious. So far they might never surface again if there were no pictures. As was the case for me with the photo of the Ukrainian woman and those of my prom date.

Juan A. Negroni, former international executive and Weston resident, is a bilingual consultant, speaker/facilitator and writer. Email him at [email protected]

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