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Of funerals, digital photos and impermanence

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For anyone who loves taking pictures, the arrival of digital photography has been a huge benefit: for one thing, even the cheapest smartphone has a camera in it whose quality would have seemed almost unimaginable a decade ago. The result is that it is easier than it has ever been to take a good snapshot, but it also means we are drowning in digital photos. And instead of taking up a few shoeboxes in the corner of the basement somewhere, they are piling up on memory cards and hard drives and DVDs, as well as on dozens of incompatible photo-sharing services and social networks. Where are these digital memories going to be when we need them in the future?

I have been thinking about this ever since I got my first digital camera (which had a then-impressive resolution of 1.2 megapixels), and it comes to mind every time I try to organize all the photos I have taken across multiple computers and devices and services. I was reminded of it again on Thursday when I attended the funeral of an old family friend. As with so many life events, there were stand-up photo galleries put together by his daughters and other relatives, with hand-picked prints from his early years: his wedding, his children when they were babies and so on. Afterward, there were family albums to look through, each with treasured (if slightly yellowing) photos of special moments.

Will our digital photos be there when we want them?

There was a DVD of some photos as well, but it wouldn’t play on the funeral home’s DVD player for some reason. That got me thinking about the technological aspect of trying to retain our digital memories — the need to transfer photos and video from incompatible format to incompatible format, from old memory cards or Minidiscs to new ones, the fears about DVDs deteriorating over time until they become unreadable. Printed photos may get yellow, but at least you can still make out what is in them.

Of course, we should all be printing out special photos that we take and storing them carefully so that we will always have a copy. But who has the time to do that? The same people who are scanning all of their old printed photos and saving them somewhere other than a shoebox, presumably. There are services that will do this for you, of course, but that also takes time and is expensive. Like many people, I try to back up my pictures to an external hard drive, and I also use Flickr as a backup. But how do I know Flickr will still be around in 20 or 30 years? Facebook clearly wants to be the main repository for your digital memories with its new Timeline view, which looks better when you upload all of your photos, and it is a useful feature. But what happens if Facebook becomes the next AOL or the next Friendster? Then you have to download all of those photos (if Facebook still has them) and find somewhere to put them.

That is the other downside of digital photography. At the funeral I attended, there were a handful of photos of special moments, and it probably didn’t take all that long to pick them out, even though this friend took a lot of pictures during his life. But with film cameras, most people would wind up with perhaps a few dozen photos during the course of a year, taken at birthdays, on holidays, etc. Now it is so easy to take pictures that it is difficult to stop — I went on vacation for a couple of weeks and took over 300 photos. More than 250 million pictures are uploaded to Facebook every day.

Easier to take but harder to find

Not all of those photos are worth keeping, of course, but when storage is so cheap and sorting through them takes so long, why not just put them all somewhere and forget them? And so they pile up, gigabyte after gigabyte. Some recent research found that 39 percent of those surveyed couldn’t find digital pictures of a recent life event, even one that took place less than a year earlier. Instead of helping us remember the key moments in our lives, digital photos seem to be making it harder.

Apps like Instagram and Path, both of which I love, actually make this problem worse instead of better in some ways. They are great for sharing quick snapshots of a place you are visiting or someone you are with or what you are eating — and you can share those easily to Flickr and Facebook and Tumblr and lots of other platforms (more than 26 photos are uploaded to Instagram every second). But do you want to save all of these for a lifetime, along with the ones you took of your new baby or your sister’s wedding? Probably not. So again, there is a filtering problem.

These problems are compounded when it comes to video, of course: It is just as easy to shoot, takes even longer to process or edit, takes up more space, and yet is likely to be just as ephemeral in nature. And that is not to mention all the videos that are trapped on Hi-8 tapes and mini-DVDs and other formats.

In the past, photographs were treasured because they were so rare: It took so long to make them and the process was so expensive that having one meant a lot. It was like a moment in time had been frozen forever, and the way those photos could trigger memories was unlike almost anything else. Now photos are just another form of digital detritus; there may be treasures in there somewhere, but we don’t have time to find them, if we can even remember where they are. Photography seems to have become more ephemeral, less permanent — whether that is a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Dear Photograph and Flickr user Leon Rice-Whetten

6 Responses to “Of funerals, digital photos and impermanence”

  1. My current job is t, and one of the presentations I may be doing at an upcoming conference is the effect of Paracopyright (IE: Bill C-11 or ACTA technological measures) on preservation and archiving. It makes an already hard problem even harder, and he law gets in the way of us being able to upgrade locked files to newer formats/etc necessary to keep the files accessable. While we look at changes to the law we need to get past thinking about a few months to thinking about our ability to access our history long into the future.

  2. Jim Maiella

    True and typically thoughtful post. One strategy I’ve found useful is setting up a “smart album” in iPhoto, just for photos I’ve given a “five star” rating.

    After each mass download, I go through and “star” the keepers, which are automatically dumped into the smart album, called it “best shots” or something. That’s the album that syncs to my iPhone and iPad – if I ever made a slide show or printed calendar, those would be the ones I was looking for.

  3. Travis Henning

    This is a good article and I can certainly appreciate the perspective. However, having gone through two close family deaths in the past couple years, outside of the first generation or two, pictures had very little meaning. My parents and I went through grandfather’s items and had no idea who were in many of the older photos not to mention the albums of vacation pictures of trees or lakes that only had meaning for my grandparents. My wife did the same when her father passed away and it was a similar experience. Most family photos have less long term importance than most people think.

  4. Nice article Matthew. Another effect of pictures being so easy to take/share is that people are often more worried about striking a pose than relaxing and enjoying the location or event they are at.

    I know this is a stretch but capitalism and consumerism ruin yet another beauty in the world. Sure there are more beautiful pictures taken by loads of amateur photographers today than before digital cameras but the massive overflow in pictures has destroyed what was once a beautiful, thoughtful and special hobby refined over years.