Pics, or it didn’t happen.

Our memories are not a carbon copy of the events we witnessed. – Brian Resnik

The use of mobile devices to capture moments is commonplace in the modern world. There is hardly a concert without 10,000 phones in the air, acting as eyes for their owners; or a night out that isn’t filled with selfies, boomerangs, and candids for ‘The ‘Gram’. But, why do we strive to document our lives so intensely?

It is a common misconception that the emergence of mobile-photography technologies has led to “digital narcissism“. However, while it has become quicker and easier to capture a moment, our habits of documenting our lives haven’t changed much, at all.

For centuries, we have documented our lives through the visual. In the Stone Age, we depicted events on cave walls. During the Renaissance, painters such as Leonardo Da Vinci sought to “perfect aspects of pictorial art“. Likewise, painted portraits of historic figures and events have shaped our understanding of the past. While, the invention of the camera quickened this process of pictorial documentation, and paved the way for the “selfie culture” we now live in. Throughout history, we have pictorially captured:

Royal Weddings,



And, of course, ourselves.

Clearly, pictorial documentations have always existed to preserve our memories, whether that be in a physical or digital format. Accordingly, the cognitive link between our memories and the memories contained within these documentations is very interesting; especially in the digital age. How do our digital archives (camera rolls, social media posts etc.) shape our memories of the events which they depict?

Foremost, when we recall a memory, we risk rewriting it. That is, we alter “details and reconstruct reality without even knowing it” (Resnick, 2018). So, it could be determined that our memories are not very reliable at all, and that the visual memories we capture through our devices are more concrete. However, this comes at a cost.

When we take a photo, we are paying attention to the device – not the moment. This shift in focus may mean that we have “cognitively offloaded” (O’Malley, 2017) our mental capability to remember that moment, relying on the device to do so for us. Thus, a strange paradox arises where our memories of events become reliant on our documentations of them. But, does this process of documentation take away from our real-life experiences or simply aid us in remembering them later?

Through ethnographic research, I wish to investigate the experience of reality as mediated by the digital. I want to discover the extent to which we experience events through our screens. And, how our memories of a particular event are shaped by viewing an archive of our documentations from that day. Do our memories as we remember them differ from the memories which appear in our digital archives? If so, which version is more authentic?


O’Malley, K., 2017. ‘Pic Or It Didn’t Happen’: Taking Photos Affects Your Memory Of The Moment. [online] ELLE. Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Sep. 2018].

Resnick, B., 2018. What smartphone photography is doing to our memories. [online] Vox. Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Sep. 2018].

Yong, E., 2013. When Memories Are Remembered, They Can Be Rewritten. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 25 Sep. 2018].

Note: all image sources are accessible by hovering over the image. 

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John Mark Arnold

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