I’m worried about all the photos we have. There are way too many and I don’t know how we’re going to deal with them all.
I’m not talking about the estimated trillion-plus photographs per year being taken by the 7-billion people worldwide who have cellphones.
That is obviously a cause for concern, but I’m worrying about all the photos from before the digital era. The hundreds, if not thousands of them that are lying around our homes.
Photos of each generation
One of the many differences between young and old is the way the generations relate to photos. Today photography is immediate. It takes only seconds from thinking about shooting a digital image to viewing and sharing it.
In the analogue era, cameras and film were expensive so every shot was carefully considered. Back then we had to wait a long time for photographs to be developed. At first it took weeks, then eventually a matter of days.
I still remember the thrill of the first same-day photo service. Then came the wonder of 1-Hour Developing, with photos sometimes delivered through a drive-through window. Polaroids were the first attempt at instant amateur photography, a precursor to the immediacy of digital technology.
Sharing photos used to mean showing original prints to friends and family. Or heading back to the photo shop (using the old definition of that term) to have copies made.
Photos, photos everywhere
My worry now is about our pre-digital photos. Seminal shots from childhood, youth and family life of birthdays, graduations, weddings and family reunions are often displayed in frames and stuck in albums. But most of us have a lot more photos that are not so well organized.
Masses of photos are stuffed in drawers and boxes. Some are still in the envelopes the original prints and negatives came in. There are also ones that we remember taking but can’t seem to find. Which we hope will turn up when we finally make time to sift through all our photos.
Most of our personal photographic collections are in disarray. Unpreserved and unprotected. Which means that our visual histories are seriously at risk. Disaster could strike at any moment in the form of fire, flood or paper-chowing insects.
Don’t agonise – digitise
How best to deal with this crisis? Clearly we all need to digitise our photographic archives. The preferred approach is to make digital copies with a scanner. You can try to DIY if you have a decent scanner that can save photos at high resolution. But be forewarned that scanning can be extremely time-consuming.
Each photo or group of them must be carefully placed on the scanner, scanned at an excruciatingly slow speed, then removed and repeated for the next scan. Multiply that by the number you have and you’re talking days, if not weeks of scanning. Which is as tedious as photocopying but more finicky. Thus you may prefer to find a service that can scan your images onto a DVD, external hard drive or memory stick.
Mission accomplished? Not yet
Once you have created your precious digital photo archive – and at least one back-up copy, preferably kept off-site – you may think that your mission is accomplished, in terms of photographic preservation.
Sorry to inform you that getting your photos into digital form is not considered a permanent solution. You will still need to “future-proof” your digital archive.
Since technology is ever changing, in order to be able to access your photos in years hence you need to plan for a “format migration”. Ask DVD and flash drive manufacturers how long the information on them will be accessible. They may mention a potential to survive into the next century, but won’t guarantee you beyond the next a few years. Therefore you will need to be ready to move your stored photos into another format fairly soon.
You may think you can solve this problem by storing your photos “in the cloud”. Not necessarily. They can apparently be damaged in cyberspace, by syncing. And please note that even a cloud solution will encounter future format issues.
Enough about the tech side. I still have my worries about dealing with all these photos. I worry that we are spending too much time on managing our photo archives, a process that is more exhausting than fulfilling. I worry that not enough time is being spent on appreciating our photos.
I believe that we should all be enjoying our personal photographic archives. We should spend time looking at our photos, together with family and friends. We should let our photos trigger memories about when and where they were taken. More important than our efforts at preserving our photos, we should let them prompt us to share stories about the people and places they help us to recall.