Photography, Memories And Dreams, And The Disintegrating Boundaries In Between

You know when you wake some mornings and your head is so full of intense imagery it takes a while to sift through the parts that were dreams, those you might have seen in a film, and what actually happened in the past?

Those moments when you cannot immediately order your thinking, and these scattered fragments seem to descend in slow motion like snowfall from the sky inside your mind, gradually taking form and resembling at least some kind of understandable order again as they land?

Or is this just me?


I’ve always been a very sensory person, especially visual.

Which I guess made photography an inevitable pursuit, though I did arrive fairly late to it, after a couple of decades of being more of a poet and writer than a photographer.

These days, as much as I love photography – making my own photographs as well as viewing other people’s – I do believe it further muddies the waters of my mind.

For instance, during my childhood I don’t recall many photographs being taken.

My nan usually had a simple Kodak 110 to hand for day trips, and I have a distant memory of seeing the Minolta “rising sun” branding on a camera in my uncle’s house.

But that was about it. My parents certainly never had cameras, which seems very strange now, with the ubiquity of compact cameras and camera phones these days. Even back then compact film cameras were pretty commonplace.

So some of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood, I couldn’t really tell you for sure if they are images my own mind captured at the time, or memories of photographs I’ve seen of the occasion, weeks, months, even years later. 

When I walk these days around familiar places, I often notice a particular sign or door or gravestone, and think “that doesn’t look right”. Because the most enduring memory I have of it is typically of a photograph I made weeks, months, or years ago and which has stuck in my mind, and seems to override the reality of how it looks now.

I’m not sure any of this blurring of boundaries between photographs, genuine memories and dreams really matters, other than being confusing at times to know what’s “real”.

But does that even matter?

I recall dreams in the past where I’ve been involved in some kind of adventure or liaison with someone I’ve know in reality, and my reaction to and perception of them in reality has then changed because of the dream.

As if we’ve had some telepathic connection that’s bonded us, without saying a word.


Many say that visualising something in your mind (whether deliberately whilst awake, or whilst dreaming) is on some level provides the exact same intensity of experience as if it had really happened.

This is why techniques like mental rehearsal and pre-visualisation work so well, whether for the average person wanting to give a confident presentation or have a difficult conversation go well, or a world class athlete preparing to win Olympic Gold.

If you imagine vividly enough, it’s almost as if its already happened. 

My memory has certainly become more selective as I’ve got older – I just don’t tend to make space for things I don’t consider important enough, or know I can access another way – either because I know someone else will remember, or because it’s written down (I’m big on lists!).

And these edges are definitely merging more than when I was younger – even though I’ve always dreamed vividly and frequently throughout my life.

Perhaps because the older I’ve become, the more “real” experiences I’ve known, the more photographs I’ve made, and the more dreams I’ve had, it’s inevitable that there’s more potential for these to become muddled and intertwined, just through the sheer increase in volumes on all three fronts.

I don’t know.

It’s not something I’m too concerned about, even if it sometimes bothers others!

How about you? Do you ever have difficulty differentiating between a photograph you made, a memory of a place, or a dream you had about it? 

Do you think making photos enhances your memory, or muddles it?

Please let us know below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

9 thoughts on “Photography, Memories And Dreams, And The Disintegrating Boundaries In Between”

  1. Dan, I am like you and find nowadays at 62 years of age my memories of real life and of dreams are more muddled. I also find it harder to remember events that happened in my life. Taking photos certainly helps my memory of things even things that happened a few days ago. I am finding that especially with my photos around my home. I am amazed at how much it changes in small ways like a flower from the garden, the arrangement of my coloring pencils sprawled on my desk that are no longer in that position today. xoxo susanJOY

  2. Hola Dan! Yo provengo de una familia de fotógrafos aficionados, así que las fotos fueron parte esencial de mis recuerdos desde mi niñez…La realidad está allí fuera nuestro, pero sólo la percibimos como fruto del procesamiento de nuestras sensaciones por parte de la mente individual de cada uno…ver. oir, oler, tocar, imaginar, soñar, prever, previsualizar, es todo parte de la “realidad” creada por cada ser humano, la vida es un todo que excede por mucho a la suma de sus partes… Un saludo!

    1. Pablo, thank you for your thoughts!

      You’ve got me thinking, and I guess a great photograph not only brings a direct visual image, but prompts other senses too. Then even two or three senses evoked at the same time can be very much more powerful in helping us remember than any one sense alone.

  3. My dreams are a full on cinematic experience. I seldom dream about my own reality at all, so there is no confusion. I think maybe I should have been a movie director 😀.

    1. I have dreams like this from time to time. Are you sometimes in the action as the lead, and sometimes like the director viewing from overhead and swooping into different parts of the action?

      1. I have to say it is more like sitting in the cinema watching a gigantic screen. Some of my movies seem so much better at the time, pity I can’t remember them well enough to write down. However I am sure they would be nonsensical gibberish in the cold light of day 😀.

  4. Memory is such a tricky thing. Some of the photos I’ve taken have become the memory I have of a place or an event. Other photos, mostly ones my mom took when I was a kid, illuminated things I did not remember at all but which I wove into my life narrative and are now as good as memories.

    1. Yes I’m sure I have exactly what you describe Jim – “some of the photos I’ve taken have become the memory I have of a place or an event”…

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