Nostalgia. I keep coming back to it. As a theme, as a topic to explore. On one hand I think it's because it's an experience I'm especially prone to, wandering back to memories and different times often, for better or worse. (How much is too much?) So I try to make sense of it, see how others view it – bringing it into the stories I write about others too. To me it's only natural, because memory is so inherently threaded into who we are, how we got to where we are now.
I think at the same time it's also just because I'm hugely empathetic. Sometimes I feel like this soppy sap of a human that people must see and roll their eyes at. My own mum has been known to call movies and books that meander along in memories and slow, descriptive moments with soul-searching, dreamer-types 'a bit long-winded and self-indulgent'. But those are the kinds of stories I love – visually and verbally.
Dreams, expressions, imaginings, ideas and points of view all have our own individual bent, shaped in part by what came before and how we remember it. It's all interconnected. So to me, diving into memory is a vivid window into one's psyche and into what makes us tick, light up or take pause.
So because I'm always sharing my own slow, dreamer-type meanders, I wanted to hear from some others about their take on nostalgia and memory instead – and reached out to three creatives whose work captured the theme for me in one way or another. Read on to hear from photographers Mark Forbes and Savannah van der Niet, and owner of Dream On Vintage Lisa Carbone.
I hope you enjoy their perspectives as much as I do. - Jai
Image by Savannah van der Niet.
What does nostalgia mean to you?
Mark: To me nostalgia is an overwhelmingly positive emotion. It is comfortable and has tinges of warmth. It is a reminder of a simpler, possibly happier time. While there is a sense of longing or missing something that may have left, there is also the beauty and enjoyment of being able to find a connection to positive memories.
It could be triggered by something heard, revisiting a place, a chance encounter with someone from your past, lines in a book, the smell of a meal or perfume, a scene in an image, or an object you feel a connection to.
There must be a certain set of circumstances at play when the emotion or feeling of nostalgia is created in our memories - and while sometimes a feeling of nostalgia is easily linked and understood, for example when looking at an image from previous decades, there are other times when we experience nostalgia but are not really sure as to why.
Images by Mark Forbes.
Savannah: I honestly never liked the word – it feels a little lazy. I think because it’s used as a go-to word for people to blanket term anything that has an old or worn aesthetic, especially analogue photography. The word itself feels too small.
I listened to a podcast recently where I learned that nostalgia was originally the word for a diagnosable illness effecting Swiss mercenary soldiers, that’s a combination of the Greek words for ache/grief and homecoming. That’s more honest to the experience of nostalgia for me.
There’s a heat wave in Berlin at the moment, and even today there was a moment in the pre-storm mugginess that felt exactly like home. There’s weeks I’ve woken up missing the people I love back home, as if it’s the only thing my sleeping mind is processing. When I last visited home as the plane touched down the words “I make sense here” unwillingly came to my mind.
Nostalgia is the gap between where you are and that aching for a place – which is often unexpected and often physical.
Lisa: Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for a feeling, situation or emotion from the past. A moment that has passed and which makes you happy to think back on, but also includes an element of sadness, because you know what happened won’t ever happen the same way again.
Images by Savannah van der Niet.
Can you share a memory that stayed with you? And why do you think it stuck?
Mark: As I'm sure most people do, I have many memories that stay with me - a vast jumbled recollection of events ranging from traumatic to happiness and joy. I would only associate the word nostalgia with those positive memories.
As a child, I lived in a few different countries around the world - including stints in England, the Netherlands and a few cities in Australia. Some of my strongest positive memories come from my time spent during my early teenage years living in the Netherlands. I was attending an international school with lots of other children that were there for periods ranging from a few months to years. New people were always coming and going, and I really remember having a great time. Memories during that period tend to focus specifically on friends, football (soccer) and local foods.
An example of memories from that time that have always stuck with me would come from weekends. Often I'd be going to play football with a couple of my friends – we played in a team with Dutch kids (and we didn't really speak much Dutch and the other kids' English was much better). The game was so much fun, and often it was really freezing cold in winter – zero or below, and sometimes snowing or hailing. At half time, they would often serve us scolding hot sweet tea – and without fail I'd burn my tongue or the roof of my mouth. After the game, we would get changed and then go to the club house with our parents. Standard food was hot chips with mayonnaise – absolutely delicious. After that generally I'd go into town with my friends, and we'd go to the CD store to check out the music, or maybe to the movies. It was something that was repeated week in week out, and memories that I will never forget.
I think they stuck for multiple reasons. There was the age I was at where you are starting to grow up a bit more, there was living in a foreign country – not really speaking the language very well – there was the cold weather, my love of playing football, the taste and smells of the comfort food and the teenage joy of having freedom to hang out with your friends and listen to music. A powerful mix.
L-R images by Lisa Carbone (Sicily) and Savannah van der Niet (Brisbane).
Savannah: Last time I went home to Australia, Mum and I were driving by the beach. I grew up in a small beachside town. Every time we drive home mum asks “fast route or scenic route?” and of course, we take the scenic route. We drove by the ocean as a storm set in, and she pulled over so we could watch the lightning in the distance. We were both giddy with excitement. The rain hit us in the car and I realised I was wearing my swimmers under my clothes, so I jumped out and stood in the ocean with the hot rain coming down. All I could think was how much I love this place, and how special the wildness of Australia is. The ocean, my mum and the warmth I guess were the combination of what home is for me.
Lisa: A place I like to remember is the garden of my grandparents in Sicily, which was rich in greens and fruits with a big palm tree in the middle, a place where everything was growing. We have spent much time there together as a family, enjoyed delicious homemade food and long, warm summer evenings.
I think these memories stuck with me because of the energy people bring to places and what goes when someone is leaving. Since these times are gone, when I'm there now I am always reminded of the energy that was.
Images by Lisa Carbone.
Is memory a theme you intentionally explore in your photography?
Mark: I choose to take images of what I find interesting and what I enjoy depicting, sometimes I may be conscious that a subject has a certain aspect of nostalgia to it, while other times I am simply making a photo for myself of a certain view or feeling that I want to depict.
I think that as a photographer you can't help but have a certain part of you entwined in the final image, and in a way all photos are memories of the person that took them.
How other people choose to interpret the images is something that is always interesting. On occasion i've had people comment that they feel nostalgia for the scene in the image yet they know they've never been there. I think that goes back to my earlier comment about how nostalgia can sometimes be quite easily and literally interpreted, but at other times someone may feel unsure as to why the sensation is being experienced.
Savannah: Memory is a theme in my work, definitely. I am drawn to imagery that is empty and alludes to a memory, oftentimes one you’re not a part of.
That disjointedness in photography is a space I really love.
Lisa: Not on purpose to be honest, it just happens. I guess it’s a mix of my camera, which is from the 70s and gives that feeling of a time gone by, and that I like to play with the sun and shadows and capture the simple beauty of nature. Usually I capture quiet places too, so in my pictures not much is happening. I think all of this gives room to slow down, relax and go down memory lane.
Image by Savannah van der Niet.
What other themes do you explore or find inspiration in for your creative endeavours?
Mark: My most recent body of work involves exploring the beauty that can be found in the ordinary and how that is accessed during solitude. The series is titled "Beautiful Solitude" and the concept is described as follows:
"Traces of beauty exist everywhere around us. The scenes depicted in this series can be found just around the corner in all of our daily lives, there is no need to travel to an exotic location to find them. Many people however may not see the beauty in the ordinary, either being too busy, caught up in their daily hustle, or have simply not spent the time looking to appreciate the details of everyday ordinary spaces and surrounds. Sometimes all we may need is the time and space - physical and emotional - to be able to pause and experience them.
This series asks the viewer to stop for a few minutes and soak in the details that can go unseen in everyday life. While they contain the traces of people that have come before, it is the absence of anyone recognisable in the images that allows us to contemplate and appreciate the concept of beautiful solitude.
The series has evolved over the last 2-3 years and has coincided with a focus on mindfulness and mediation in my life."
Savannah: I’m not an artist in my approach to photography in the sense that I consider a theme before creating what I want to explore. I don’t create many bodies of work, it’s usually isolated images that feel natural to take and I realise afterwards why I find them interesting. The things I am naturally drawn to are definitely memory, place and intimacy.
Lisa: My eye is drawn to feminine characteristics like softness, tenderness, sensuality and the pureness of the human body in general.
To see more of Mark's work you can find him on Instagram and his portfolio and limited edition prints on his website. See Savannah's work on Instagram and online. And Lisa's world at Dream On Vintage on Instagram and online.
Image by Mark Forbes.
- Thanks to Savannah, Lisa and Mark for sharing.