‘We Photograph Things To Drive Them Out of Our Minds’: War, Vision, and the Decoding of Memory in the Photography of Iraq Veteran Russell Chapman

Johanna Fassl, Franklin University Switzerland; Columbia University

In 'We Photograph Things To Drive Them Out of Our Minds': War, Vision, and the Decoding of Memory in the Photography of Iraq Veteran Russell Chapman, Johanna Fassl discusses how a soldier physically sees war, how that information is encoded in the brain and what forms it takes when recalled from memory. Fassl starts by describing how memory of traumatic events surfaced during digital manipulation of photographs in both high-dynamic-range (HDR) and Lightroom applications by Scottish born photographer Russell Chapman. Processes of abstraction turned seemingly 'benign' pictures into evidence of lived situations. In experiments conducted in the classroom, the traumatic content of abstract photographs is recognized even when the viewer has no idea about the context or creative process of an image. In her analysis of vision that takes place under emotional stress, Fassl refers to explosion scenes in Kathryn Bigelow's academy award winning film The Hurt Locker. The blasts were filmed with extraordinary technology that captures the most minute details, giving the viewer sharp images of small pebbles rising from the ground and fine particles of rust detaching from cars, all in super slow motion. Referring to recent studies in neuropsychology that demonstrate the alteration of both consciousness and vision under emotional stress, Fassl confirms that emotional arousal prioritizes detail-focused vision. Seeing war is a visually acute process and recalling war happens in a similar manner, where the details that received precedence during the event return from the depths of the human mind with equal precision and without narrative context. The paper explores how recent technologies advance the understanding of how traumatic content is processed in the brain.

Keywords: HDR photography, Hurt Locker, Russell Chapman, technology, vision, trauma, war

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