Travels in my Armchair: How Rediscovered Photos Revived the Past

Mathew Martin is inspired to dig out some old photos after reading a recent article in this magazine, and reflects how changing technology is altering our relationship with the past

In the May edition of this magazine, wandering Northern Irishman Jonny Blair wrote of his adventures in the Ethiopian city of Harar. His article, Feeding the Hyenas of Harar, Ethiopia, is here.

As I read his fascinating account, it occurred to me that it was exactly ten years since I’d visited the city, travelling from Addis Ababa on the now defunct railway.

Reminiscing on my trip, I decided to dig out my old photos — and embarked on a very domestic adventure in my parents’ attic. After quite some time stumbling about in the gloom, braving spiders, bats and (oddly) a grasshopper, I emerged triumphant with a dust-coated album that I hadn’t seen for years.

I began to flick through, and was astonished to discover that I remembered taking every single picture. I could remember where I was standing, what I was thinking, whether I was hungry, hot, tired or excited.

This was strange, as only the other day I was looking at pictures I’d taken just a few months ago, and I could hardly remember being there. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t drunk at the time, and Alzheimer’s, I hope, is still some years off.

The only explanation I can think of is that the rise of digital photography has dulled the connection between picture taking and memory. Back in 2004 I was still using an old Olympus OM10, buying and developing rolls of 24 exposures. The cost of this was not inconsiderable, so every click of the shutter counted.

Today, when I click away dementedly on my digital camera, perhaps I’m not creating these little anchor points in my memory? Perhaps the fact that I rarely print off my occasional successes and arrange them into albums also weakens those links with the past?

Either way, reading Jonny’s recent account of his experiences in Harar, and rediscovering the memories of my own, I feel like I’ve enjoyed the adventure all over again, without leaving my armchair.

Click on any of the images below to open a slideshow.

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