“If the discarded parts were used to build another ship, which of the two, if either, is the real ship of Theseus?”
The Ship of Theseus paradox and the space it occupies in philosophical discussions is symptomatic of the human obsession with the ‘original presence’ and how something ‘really’ was. Photography as an art form emerged from this very need to preserve moments as they are, to express reality as it occurred. This is quite apparent in the movie The Ship of Theseus in which when the protagonist Aaliya Kamal loses her sight to a cornea infection, she picks up the camera ‘to document, archive and remember.’ Reality preserved in memory is smudged, open to contestation and is shaped by our perception of the event. This does not allow memory and its expression through recollection, to become a viable method of keeping intact the reality of events. There are various moments in the movie when this lack of the memory and the process of recollection is brought forth. Aaliya fights with her lover over an incident where an uncle of hers points out that he does not understand whether it was the music that was being celebrated or the fact that the musicians were blind. He counters this by saying ‘I was there, he said nothing like this.’ Another instance that brings out the uncertainty of memory is Aaliya’s conversation with her mother where she describes an incident from her childhood, the conversation unfolds in the following manner :
Aaliya- Mom, do you remember? We had once gone to Fayoum when I was little and near the Nile..
Mother- Nile? It was a lake, my dear.
Aaliya- Yeah, same thing. So, there was a swan cart, okay..
Mother- There was a what?
Aaliya- A swan cart
Mother (laughs)- A swan cart
Aaliya- I know this sounds ridiculous but I have a distinct memory of it. You know how you doubt sometimes if what you remember is your own experience, a dream or something somebody told you. You picture it so well that it becomes your own memory.
In the first instance, the idea of physical presence validating the veracity of a recollection points out the lack in the memory, what happens to the memory when two physical presences contradict each other’s recollection of the event. In the second there is an acceptance of the lack of truth in the pictures of the mind which become understood as memories. This is where the photograph is introduced to fill the gap. As pointed out by John Berger a critic, novelist and painter- ‘By contrast (with cinema), if there is a narrative form intrinsic to still photography, it will search for what happened, as memories or reflections do. Memory is a field where different times coexist.’ The photograph by reducing the range and providing a physical evidence of the incident allows a more concrete understanding of events. It adds to the memory by giving it a tangible existence, a physical shape and helps to articulate the memory better. It enriches the memory by giving it the validation it needs. It also substitutes memory by providing a more reliable medium for the conservation of the past. Memory can find itself only through expression which involves a recollection and a recreation, the photograph then becomes the stimuli that facilitates this recollection and navigates the recreation.
As pointed out by a journalist in the movie ‘all art emerges from a need to record the apparent, to capture the essence’ it also allows a certain amount of control over the what this ‘essence’ would be and the shape it would take. It does not then remain just a substitute to memory, the amount of control it offers turns it into a form of expression. Aaliya’s use of photography to conserve memories follows the same trajectory as she begins to view photography as an expression of her self. When her lover praises one of the pictures as being intuitive, she demands that he delete the picture because she doesn’t ‘know’ the picture. She wishes to hold power over every aspect of the picture. A control over the photograph allows control over the memory it engenders. The photograph frozen in an instant of time provides to the observer only an instantaneous glimpse into the event that transpired, further distancing her from conserving the ‘reality’ of the event. The more control the photograph allows the more distant it creates. This distance is such that it cannot be resolved even in the realm of fantasy, as the ‘pensieve’ which allows Dumbledore to extract memories and visions from Harry’s mind and project them on a surface external to the body cannot represent the real truth. Remembering invariably leads to re-membering which is a creation of narratives, a creation that the individual can manipulate. This manipulation does not then allow a coming into being of the reality. Hence, reality conserved either through recollection or through different mediums of artistic expressions is only a ‘half-truth’ as it does not archive events as they really happened. What art does is to help us recreate events, to say through our version of reality all that is required to be said in the present.
– Ashwini Rajpoot