“Generation Gap” – A Snapshot of Grief and Remembrance in the Digital Age

We live in an age where documentation of our most painful, precious, and pernicious “life events” (Facebook pun very much intended) is a tap away. The selfie has found an interesting place in cultural context in terms of memorialization. But how is it changing the way we express grief, respect, and demonstrations of remembrance publicly?

I recently visited Westminster bridge to document Londoners (and tourists) paying their respects to the recently-fallen victims of the terror attack at Westminster which claimed the lives of three victims. While London has made quite the comeback, which I covered in a recent photoessay featured by Edge of Humanity Magazine, it has also made a vested effort in displaying its support for the fallen and for the community’s togetherness in the wake of terror.

Flowers adorn the bridge at every lamppost, notes of encouragement and solidarity, love and oneness abound. On Parliament Square, bouquets of flowers lie in pristine rows, still wrapped in cellophane, stretching the length of the green.

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As I watched the young ladies on the left snap shots of the flowers, of each other, and seemingly quip back and forth about the “where-to” next, their backs turned to the flowers with the occasional exception made for a picture of the daffodils, the comparably-late middle aged woman on the right approached.

IMG_5266 (2).jpgQuietly, no digital device in hand, she placed her hand on the bridge in silence, remaining there for minutes on end, undeterred. It was unclear on whether or not they were a party at first, but as the young ladies made their way off into the distance after their photo-lust had been sated, I watched the older woman walk to nearly each and every lamppost on the bridge, pausing before each and every one.

There she stood for minutes on end, watching nothing but the flowers, absorbed in thoughts and, presumably, in silence for the remembrance of the fallen. Her sombre expression to me implied that she felt deeply for these people, and that in her pausing, she had expressed more condolence for these people than had a thousand selfie-takers combined.

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She persisted.

Everywhere, people stop to take pictures — because it’s London, and that’s what people do here and everywhere else. Photos of the buildings, photos of each other in front of the buildings, photos of the memorials (some by professional-grade photographers and others, novices). But many of those stopping for the “selfie” in front of the pop-up memorial locations represented an indiscriminately younger demographic, leaving out no minority from its midst, with middle-aged and elderly patrons pausing alongside the rows of flowers lying like bodies, or lamppost pediments adorned with flora to hang their heads and comment on the notes and sentiments left with more depth.

This raises some interesting questions, questions which, I acknowledge, are not “new” in terms of artists’ representations of this issue, with a recent “Yolocaust” project, which photoshops devastating photographs of the holocaust into the background of selfies taken at Holocaust memorial sites garnering important media attention.

It is an acknowledged fact that taking a “selfie” at a place meant to permanently memorialise an act of terror or atrocity can be considered gauche. But what does the tendency of some members of the younger generations to do so say about our increasingly-digitised culture?

But as a temporary memorial, and at that, a memorial which holds the purpose of unifying people and bringing a shaken community together, does this site hold a different social protocol?In this case, is the fact that these impermanent places of memorialization intend to represent normalcy, in a way — an exception to the unspoken rules of digital society? Does the selfie, in this case, inspire unity and respect the fallen, providing an opportunity for solidarity and strength?

Or potentially, has a faction of digital culture approached a need for self-glorification so desperate that the need to prove their patronage to sites meant for remembrance bears with it a social standard for the “selfie”‘s inclusion? Its intent, arguably to prove the selflessness of the attendee as users of social media sites enshrine themselves and glorify their lives at an increasing rate, arguably accomplishes just the opposite by shouting into the digital void for validation of altruism in a social forum.

I feel I am yet undeserving of the titles which culturally most accurately describe my professional inclinations: “researcher”, “writer”, “photographer”, “journalist”, “artist” — I do not believe I will ever feel comfortable with these titles, and so by those standards, am a part of the crowd. But as someone who fits, at least, the intent behind each of those titles, I acknowledge it would be hypocritical of me to address the actions of others when I, too, am behind a lens (and have taken photos of myself paying respects to my family’s graves since it is somewhat of a tradition). I believe firmly, that whenever photographing or otherwise documenting a cultural happening of any variety, it is ethically important to take a photograph for face value as much as it is important to take it for the thousand words it imbues; that is to say, that we can know little context beyond what is absorbed by the photographer and writer,  and all of what we can know by making our own assumptions and seeking the answers to our own questions.

Beyond this, I feel it is most critical that, like time spent in nature, only footprints are left at a scene of still-healing pain, and that in taking an image, and so capturing it forever, sometimes unaware of the audience it will be exposed to, photographers, writers, and artists take time to pay their respects in a non-digital way. A journalist’s job is to reveal the truth. A photographer’s job is to capture a piece of time. An artist trades in feeling, and a writer, often, in pain and pleasure. Our job as human beings of this age is to approach all things asking questions, internally processing always, wondering how we can improve ourselves as members of society.

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Caroline C. Evans Abbott

I am a Master of Research (M.Res) candidate in English Literature at the University of Glasgow (expected 2017), an incoming MFA Creative Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College (expected 2019), and a recent Honors Program graduate of the B.A. Studio Art program at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut (2015). From 2015 - 2016, I served as an English, Writing, and Creative Enrichment Tutor at the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Native American Reservation in Brooks, California and from 2014 - 2015 as a Writing Associate (Tutor) in the Albertus Magnus College Writing Centre. I am a Contributor and Photographer to The Glasgow Guardian and represent M.Res English Literature students on the Student Staff Liaison Committee (SSLC) and Students' Representative Council (SRC). This year, I look forward to writing, photographing my perspective on our world, exploring Europe, and pursuing further academic and professional opportunity.

4 thoughts on ““Generation Gap” – A Snapshot of Grief and Remembrance in the Digital Age”

  1. Excellent train of thought. I have always thought of my photography as documenting a moment in time; certainly, as in my case, not for fame or profit. I really enjoyed this blog post. Thank you. g

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback, G! I’m so glad the piece spoke to you 🙂 There’s so much we see in the world which deserves documentation. I love your shots! Black and white in particular is something I love working with but am always reticent to share (though I’m working on a few projects now). So glad to have come across your work!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the selfie culture carries with it something that existed before, but needed present digital photographic technology to express. As an old guy, I think back to pre-digital photography behaviour. If you were visiting/vacationing or family gathering there was always the moments of wanting everyone in the picture. There was the old family joke of why are there no pictures of Dad/Mom or some other relative because they were the designated snapper/camera guy.

    If you were out and about taking someone from away to see the local sights, monuments, gardens, Niagara Falls then either you or someone else will request that a passerby take a picture of the whole group/couple.

    Another thing that is noticeable in family albums from my parents/in-laws generation ( came of age in the 1930s-40s ) was that photos of time & place almost always included people. It was an event. Perhaps a a shot of the old family home or car/cat/dog, but most likely there was a person in the shot – mom at the doorway, uncle proudly standing next to car, children with animals. No artsy shots of things – ordinary working people documenting self/producing a physical artifact of memory was the mandate.

    As to your shots of the bridge and the generational difference, consider that youth perceives
    time stretching ahead out of The Now. As you become older, The Now anchors you to a line stretching into the past. Finality and endings are part of The Now and the ever nearing future. Terrible events create very different associations in the different generations. We older types will remember and ruminate, linking those touched by tragedy into our line that stretches into the past, anchoring them in the moment we are now experiencing. The young will take that moment into the future honouring the fallen by building more moments that will be linked those captured quickly on the bridge.

    This all of course does not diminish the fact that digital technology can reduce or weaken emotional connections for some and there needs to be an effort to create a sustained emotional & thoughtful connection to time, place , people, and events .

    Take care. Life is presents challenges – presently it seems eager to do so. 🙂

    If you check my blogging background, you will find I have three blogs ( retired with too much time & a busy brain )- Topics include Media Literacy, Photography, and Creative Expression .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to craft this beautiful reply! You’ve introduced some great thoughts.

      I think you’re right in this way — the digital age does introduce a sense of transparency to acknowledging and understanding social issues, viewing it through a new lens (sorry, couldn’t help this even if it is quite pun-ny). I can relate to this having grown up around film cameras and the concurrent rise of digital technology — there are so few photos of us all together for this exact reason. Humans will always be driven to capture the experiences we share between family (good and bad), and sometimes that makes art. Other times it drives controversy. Other times it ends up a series of boring slides your aunt pulls out when you visit!

      One piece which is important to mention — you’ve said that many of these family photos include ‘no artsy shots’, which I can understand, surely. There are times when a photo is just a photo. But where a photo may well be just a photo, there is, no matter what, a reason why the shutter was clicked at that place and time: that is to say, a human motivation. My argument in saying this is that, of course, while many photographs are not intentionally made to be “art”, and many are not composed in a particularly artistic way because they were created to serve the primary purpose of documentation, they have long been the most common practiced form of art among first-world patrons of our society. Not everyone will sketch a scene of their wife taking in the seaside, or standing beside the new car, but many will (and can) photograph it. It is in this way which I consider all photographs art, particularly the ones by ordinary people, as you have described. I frequently mull over this quote from an academic essay I read recently by Jennifer Green-Lewis … “Photographs, we note, have meanings that speak to the world beyond their immediate frames and aren’t necessarily “about” what we see at all: they may speak of our desires far more eloquently than they speak about their subjects.” So I guess you could say I take all photographs quite seriously in that I find them indicative of more than what their frame or intentionality may suggest, but above all I believe wholly for their potential to drive conversations like this one, which in many ways is art itself 🙂

      With regard to your comments on age, I agree completely: there’s a lot I don’t see and feelings I don’t interact fully with because of my age. Members of my generation and I come at things from a vastly different perspective, and even in cases where that perspective has been tempered with familiarity with death or the delicacy of life itself, we are not at the same level as one who has seen so much more of life. I especially like what you’ve said about building moments, very well put. It, I suppose, boils down to the individual: their motivation, their attitudes towards grief, and whatever societal associations they may hold with it. Social photography in particular is kind of a bear in that we can never really have the full story since we can never have the whole, factual context. It presents some interesting questions at an ethnographic level!

      I am so grateful for your reflection and perspective on my work and the time you’ve taken to reach out. I will certainly head over and take a look at your musings. I have greatly enjoyed learning from our conversation and I look forward to viewing more of your work! Hope to see you back soon 🙂

      Take care and cheers to many more good conversations xx

      Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

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