• Heather Quinn

Memento Mori: What This Is and Who I Am

The following was originally posted on my blog Memento Mori

I like to trespass in abandoned buildings. These are off Route 66, in Amboy, California, in the Mojave Desert.

I’ve had this name, “Memento Mori,” reserved for a blog for a long time, and I think this is finally time I get started using it. Memento Mori is the title of an essay I wrote a few years back, an essay about photography as a way to preserve moments that are destined to come to an end. I took the phrase from Susan Sontag’s On Photography. She says “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” This, according to Sontag, damns photography as a medium.


But being a writer as well as a photographer, I can’t see how writing is any different. They both participate in another person’s or thing’s mortality. They both have the capacity to be exploitative, they both seem to be about this often unexpressed anxiety that the moment might go by unnoticed, and be gone forever if we miss the chance to document it.


Sontag is correct that taking a photograph (just as, I believe, writing and creating art) can be a violent, or, at the very least, aggressive, act. In the hands of the underrepresented, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged, it can also be a powerful weapon. It can be a tool to say “look at this that you don’t want to see, feel this that you don’t want to feel, hear my voice that you don’t want to hear.” Or, as my favorite writer Joan Didion says, “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions —with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”


I’m a writer and a photographer. I’m also a mother to two small children, which means that I don’t have time or space to do writing and photography often enough. So I’m going to use this space as a place to share some thoughts and photos, more than anything else just to get myself in the habit of creating something on a regular basis. The writing and photography I do tends to involve a lot of research and editing and tends to be a “work in progress” for a very long time. I don’t often feel the satisfaction of having something “finished.” This will be a space of quick first drafts for me, a place to embrace imperfection, just to help me hold myself accountable and to keep my momentum going. If anyone is interested in reading it, fantastic, and thanks! If not, I’m not too concerned.


For the sake of doing something with them, I’d like to share some photos I took a few months back on a road trip along Route 66. I shot these with my Baoca, a wonderful little toy film camera I found years ago in a thrift store. For a long time, whether I was shooting film or digital, I always wanted crisp, in focus, perfectly exposed photographs. Shooting on my Baoca (just like shooting on a Diana or Holga), my goals are very different. I have no control over focusing, I have no control over exposure. Things will not be sharp, there will be strange and unpredictable light leaks and lens flares, there will be shots that simply don’t work. I have to relinquish control. Giving up control, surrendering has been a lesson I’ve needed above all else lately. As a mother to two young children, I can only carve out so much time for my writing and my photography. I have to accept that things will be left half-done, and sometimes, that they will never be completed at all. I need to find the mental and emotional space where that is alright, and where failure and imperfection is a part of the process.

I’d like to write a little about my drive through the Mojave along Route 66. In the meantime, here are some pictures – soft and poorly exposed and imperfect, but hopefully, capturing a feeling that perfection cannot.