Digital Photography: Sleepwalking into Impermanence

I was reading a blog post a while ago which reflected on why we take photographs and some of the problems of digital photography (Alex Roddie: The photos you’ll never look at again). This is something that I’ve been thinking about myself and I’m not sure that I’ve come to any definite conclusion. If and when I do, I’ll blog about it.

But, for sure, one reason we take pictures is to capture memories of significant events in our lives - family events, trips and occasions. Sometimes we go back to these many years later, to share them with other people and to remind ourselves of those times.  We want these photos to be available for a long time but my concern is that our lack of understanding of digital permanence means that our grandchildren won’t have a record of our times.

When my father died we inherited a box of family photos and several boxes of slides. We had a young baby and had just bought a house so we had no time to look at these. They went in a cupboard for several years. But, when our kids were older and asked about the grandparents they never knew, we were able to dig out that box and talk to them about their family.  Although I’ve digitised the photos, we still have the box so when and if we have grandchildren, we’ll be able to talk to them and show them pictures of their parents and grandparents when they were their age.

But now the world has changed.  Everyone now takes lots of digital photos. These may simply be stored on a disk,  ‘thrown’ randomly into storage services such as iCloud, shared on Facebook or Instagram or, for the more organised, uploaded to sites such as Flickr. We have so many photos and so little time that these are rarely annotated with anything but the metadata recorded by the camera. So we know when they were taken, maybe the location but we don’t necessarily know who is in them or why they were taken.

When film was expensive, we were sparing with photographs and even prolific amateur photographers didn’t have thousands of images to manage. I got my first digital camera in 2007 and, until I started a major cull of these, I had over 30, 000 digital images. So my ‘box of photographs’ was unmanageably large. Of course, I did have a bit of organisation and did some photo tagging but this is not necessarily useful to someone else who wants to look through the photos and talk about the images. Pictures that we or our relatives may want to come back to, perhaps in several years time, are for all practical purposes unfindable in a morass of mediocre digital images.

Now imagine if my father had digitised all of his family photos and uploaded them to Flickr. Maybe I might have got his account details but maybe not - it’s not a priority when someone has cancer.  As far as I know, sites like Flickr and Facebook haven’t really addressed the problems of digital inheritance but it is going to become an increasing issue as their user base gets older.

But let’s assume that account access is possible. When we come back to look at the photos maybe ten years later, would the account still be there? Indeed, would the storage service still be there?  Would the account have been suspended because of lack of use?  The lifetime of Internet companies is short and we have no idea really how Internet giants such as Facebook and Yahoo will evolve and change.  Free services owe nothing to their users so there can be no expectations of data being saved or made available if financial problems arise.  The working assumption that we have to make is that any photos on photo sharing services such as Facebook, Instagram or Flickr are unreliable and impermanent and if we really care about photos we need to keep copies on our own media.

Then, of course, we run into the problems of representation and local photo management. My guess is that JPEG is now such an entrenched standard that it will be around for a long time. But the same certainly isn’t true for camera RAW formats so unless you also keep JPEG copies, the chances of being able to read these in 20 of 30 years time are pretty small.  But how long is a long time? I guess the oldest photos I have were taken in the 1930s but some families have pictures that go back to the early years of the 20th century. Will JPEG still be around in 2115? Will we remember to convert the thousands of digital images that we have inherited into the new format before the convertors become obsolete? If we use software such as Lightroom to manage our photos, how long will it exist? Will we think about converting inherited repositories before it’s too late?

So, I’m going through a process of rethinking my photography - reducing digital detritus and making sure that photos can be shared without reliance on external services.

I’m becoming more selective about the photos I take -it is pointless to take several pictures of the same bog on a rainy day when you are walking in the hills. In fact, I’m not sure taking even one picture of a bog on a rainy day is worthwhile. I’m going to be even more ruthless in deleting photos that aren’t worth keeping. For family photos that people might care about, I’m going to create a ‘digital shoebox’ where I’ll make sure that my children have copies on their computers.

And I’m going back to paper -  I’ll spend time creating printed photobooks of things I think we might want to remember or even just printing some photos at home and sticking them in a box. I like the idea of my great grandchildren playing with these, wondering about the people in strange clothes and the places that may have irrevocably changed by then.