On a recent visit to my father's house, I rediscovered a box of old photos belonging to my late mother. Born and raised in Latvia she left her homeland as a young woman towards the end of the war and joined the flood of refugees, first heading to Germany, then on to a Displaced Persons Camp in Belgium, finally settling in Britain after the war. These small passport sized photographs of female friends are inscribed on the back with dedications, names and dates in Latvian and German. They were obviously given to my mother as a friendship memento and I imagine she would have reciprocated in kind. The inherent poignancy of these miniature portraits is heightened by the knowledge that their paths never crossed again and by now all are most likely dead.
In his influentual book on photography Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes states: "In this age of mechanical reproduction an absence can be replaced by a visual image. Photographs then become particularly precious residues because they can carry a freight of actuality. It gives all portrait photographs from the past a sharp poignancy for anyone who pays them serious attention, even if they are strangers. All photographs must become memento mori." (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography 1981) Is this still the case in the current age of digital reproduction where we are overwhelmed by a tide of images on a daily basis? We all have countless images on our computers and devices but we rarely print them. Can the instantaneous exchange of a digital file or the sharing of an Instagram selfie have the same resonance as the photograph as physical object and keepsake?