Present Pasts

I was still in primary school when I started keeping a daily journal. My project began in response to a conversation with my parents in which it was revealed that neither could recall in much detail what they were like when they were ten years old. It was also around this time that I attempted to commit specific images to memory, thinking to myself ‘you will remember this forever’ while looking at the playground, or ‘you will remember this feeling forever’ as I walked through the courtyard during the last few weeks of school. I was scared of growing up and forgetting who I was.

I started to create an archive. I harvested the present—in the form of photographs, letters, personalised mix CDs and journals—and filed it away. I held on tight to many tiny moments, anxious that if I let go I would lose them forever. I doubt I understood the impulse at the time. I recognise it now as the need for some kind of stability and permanence in the face of what Susan Sontag calls “time’s relentless melt”.

In On Photography, Sontag writes about the relationship between photographic images and the precarious nature of human memory. In part she argues that the act of taking a photograph, the impulse to create a record, makes people feel like they are in possession of that moment. She says this is especially relevant when people are travelling; that the act of recording events eases the kind of insecurity specific to moving through an unknown space in which we feel we have no control. This is certainly true in regards to my own experiences travelling, and also speaks more broadly to my desire to reify the fleeting present into something tangible—the personal archive as a small act of assertion.


I’ve always felt a specific, heightened anxiety around the responsibility of thoroughly recording my experiences while travelling. I suspect my distress is in part informed by my first experience of keeping a travel journal when I was six. The task was very defined in its function and audience: I was to write daily accounts of events to take back to school and show my teacher. As I recall it, the journal read like it was written to please others, with the fear that it could potentially be judged.

I remember that month of January in Tokyo. Or, rather, I remember the images I filmed in the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory.

Chris Marker (Sans Soleil)

I’ve kept a journal and carried a camera every time I’ve been overseas. Compared to my first travel journal, however, the purpose of the exercise has become a lot more ambiguous now that the audience is limited to my imagined future self. I’ve often wondered why I’ve been recording. Is it to help me remember? If so, I fear that an attempt at an objective, factual account of events would be quite dull to revisit in the future. Or is it more important and interesting to write truthfully about my emotional and psychological world? Often, though, I feel that the purpose of keeping a travel journal is to help me process, in the moment, the new and overwhelming—and sometimes uncomfortable—space I’m in. If that’s the case, perhaps there’s nothing to be gained from holding onto them afterwards; their function has already been fulfilled.

In 2008 I travelled to Japan with my family. My journal was a bulky hardcover with a maple leaf print gifted to me by an aunt. While I wrote about the food I ate and the temples I visited, I also spent an embarrassing amount of space detailing an incredibly boring preoccupation with the amount of weight I wanted to lose. I’ve reread this journal a few times and have quickly returned it to the bookshelf, unfinished, feeling much more humiliated than nostalgic.

In 2009 I travelled through North America. I took a lot of photographs, mainly fast, in-the-moment shots of my friends and the people we encountered. While they remind me of happy moments, I feel a certain sense of unease while looking through them. While I treasure these photos, there seems to me a deceit in how the camera captures its human subjects in a fleeting, arbitrary moment, forever privileging it over an infinite amount of others. Photo collections construct a framework and chronology of memory, but in doing so deny the photographer the experience of being able to recall memories in a free and unprescribed way. Photographs restrict us to the specific.

But wasn’t my fear as a child to do with losing those particulars?

Photographs show people to be so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies.

Susan Sontag

More than the events of the trip, the photos seem to speak more to the kind of person that I, as photographer, was at the time: eagerly seeking connection with other people, while lacking the kind of meditative patience and maturity required to capture a more understated, enduring image.

Looking at these now makes me think of the photo I have of myself as a child with wild hair and missing front teeth, wearing my cousin’s hand-me-downs, holding my pet cockatiel Henry and grinning into the camera’s lens. It all seems so vivid to me, but I’ve never been sure if I actually remember the moment the photo was taken or if it just feels like it’s my own memory because I’ve looked at the photo so many times.


Over the past few years, as I’ve moved between houses and cities, I have carried my personal archive. Boxes of relics, largely untouched, dutifully packed into car boots to be taken to my new home. For all the nostalgic materials I had amassed, however, I began to feel that my archive was creating a distance with myself rather than a connection. Sontag presents this idea in On Photography when she writes of the photograph’s testimony to “time’s relentless melt”: capturing it doesn’t restore the moment to us but instead illustrates our ever-increasing distance from it. Something within me had shifted, such that it now felt more important to work on accepting impermanence.

In one fast and sure moment I decided to do the irreversible and throw out all of my journals. I thought, This is for the best. I thought, I’m sure I’ll remember the most important parts. I thought, You could still rescue them from their pulpy fate. But I turned away and went back inside my house to be amongst the stuff of the present.

Image: Barry Silver


Gemma Nourse is a musician and filmmaker based in Sydney.
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