Are Photos Losing Meaning and Permanence?

For anyone who loves taking pictures, the arrival of digital photography has brought huge benefits: Even the cheapest smartphone contains a camera whose quality would have seemed almost unimaginable a decade ago. It is easier than ever to take a good snapshot—which means we are drowning in digital photos. Instead of taking up a few shoe boxes in some basement corner, they are piling up on memory cards, 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?

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 and stored 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.

There was a DVD of some photos as well, but for some reason it wouldn’t play on the funeral home’s DVD player. 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’s in them.

We should all be printing special photos that we take and then storing them carefully, so that we will always have a copy. Who has the time to do that? The same people who are scanning all their old printed photos and saving them somewhere other than a shoe box, presumably. Services will do this for you, but that also takes time and is expensive. Like many people, I try to back up my pictures to an external hard drive, using Flickr as a backup. 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 your photos; it’s a useful feature. What if Facebook becomes the next AOL or Friendster? Then you have to download all those photos (if Facebook still has them) and find somewhere to put them.

Too Many Easy Photo Ops

That’s the other downside of digital photography. At the funeral I attended, there were a handful of photos of special moments. It probably didn’t take all that long to pick them out, even though this friend took a lot of pictures during his life. With film cameras, most people wound up with perhaps a few dozen photos taken during the course of a year—at birthdays, on holidays, and so forth. Now it is so easy to take pictures that it’s 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.

Not all of those photos are worth keeping, but when storage is so cheap and sorting through them takes so long, why not just put them all somewhere and forget them? They pile up, gigabyte after gigabyte. Researchers found in 2008 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 make it harder.

Apps such as Instagram and Path, both of which I love, actually make this problem worse in some ways, instead of better. 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 them easily to Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr, and lots of other platforms. (More than 26 photos are uploaded to Instagram every second.) But do you want to save all of them for a lifetime, along with the ones you took of your new baby or your sister’s wedding? Probably not. Again, there’s a filtering problem.

These problems are compounded when it comes to video: It is just as easy to shoot, takes even longer to process or edit, fills more space, and yet is likely to be just as ephemeral in nature. Not to mention all the videos trapped on Hi-8 tapes, 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 as if a moment in time had been frozen. 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, but we don’t have time to find them—if we can even remember where they’re stored. Photography seems to have become more ephemeral, less permanent. It remains to be seen if that’s a good thing or not.

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