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Don’t Delete Your Humanity

I’ve often wondered about family photo albums. We store images and memories for later (for us, for others, for our children and their children).

But what’s usually more interesting to me is what isn’t stored. When thinking about when the camera comes out at family events or gathering of friends, it’s usually during the happy times. We don’t have photos of funerals or the morning after a bad night or disappointment or rejection. We oftentimes only have photos of happy times.

We go out of our way to smile in photos – to try and capture when we’re most pleased, most happy, most full of life. We sometimes go months without images as we work through our normal days doing our normal things, being our normal selves. This stuff largely doesn’t get captured.

Or rather, it didn’t.

Now, digital photography has put a dent in this previous behavior. We see a lot more of life being recorded today than ever before. Digital imagery has brought the cost down to the point where each image is effectively zero (we only pay with our time dealing with the cables and the uploading/downloading/processing of all that we shoot).

However, with all these new, low-cost, practically free images of our life comes a delete button. It is usually rendered with an image of a trash can – and it’s just as free. We use it all the time.

And we’re whitewashing our existence.

Creating so many images gives the impression that we’re capturing more of our lives than ever before – and we are. Mathematically, we’re capturing more moments – but, when we systematically use the delete button to get rid of the ones that aren’t quite right (and then just take another), it actually does more to hide the truth than when it simply cost too much and we didn’t take photos for months at a time.

Because that was part of the beauty of the Polaroid. Mystery clung to each impending image as it took shape, the camera conjuring up pictures of what was right before one’s eyes, right before one’s eyes. The miracle of photography, which Polaroids instantly exposed, never lost its primitive magic. And what resulted, as so many sentimentalists today lament, was a memory coming into focus on a small rectangle of film.

Or maybe not. Digital technology now excuses our mistakes all too easily — the blurry shot of Aunt Ruth fumbling with a 3-wood at the driving range; or the one of Cousin Jeff on graduation day where a flying Frisbee blocked the view of his face; or of Seth in his plaid jacket heading to his first social, the image blanched by the headlight of Burt’s car coming up the driveway; or the pictures of you beside the Christmas tree where your hair is a mess.

Digital cameras let us do away with whatever we decide is not quite right, and so delete the mishaps that not too often but once in a blue moon creep onto film and that we appreciate only later as accidental masterpieces. In fact, the new technology may be not more convenient but less than Polaroid instant film cameras were, considering the printers and wires and other electronic gadgets now required, but at this one thing, the act of destruction, a source of unthinking popularity in our era of forgetfulness and extreme makeovers, digital performs all too well. Polaroids, reflecting our imperfectability, reminded us by contrast of our humanity.

– Michael Kimmelman, NYTimes
The Polaroid: Imperfect, Yet Magical

When we have a collectively sanitized view of ourselves, we do lose some of our humanity.

Or maybe this is all just too much self-importance, and the people who come later simply won’t care about what we did today, whitewashed or not – they’ll be swimming in their own flood of sensory overload and virtual family vacations and simulated birthday cakes.

Or maybe it’s just the archivist in me who fears and loathes the delete button…

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  1. Kristina | December 29, 2008 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Actually I haven’t written much about this particular angle.

    Chalfen analyzed the “Kodak Culture” that contains the rules of what we do and do not photograph or film.

    Chalfen, Richard. (1987) “Snapshot Versions of Life.” Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

    Murray talks about how digital photography and photosharing have been changing the rules of Kodak Culture:

    Murray, Susan. (2008) “Digital images, photo-sharing, and our shifting notions of everyday aesthetics.” Journal of Visual Culture 7(2): 147-163.

    This is echoed by: Heffernan, Virginia. (2008) “Sepia no more: Forget the art school aesthetic. Photo-sharing web sites have their own ideas about beauty.” New York Times Magazine (April 27, 2008): 18.

    Batchen has some interesting work on the relationship between photos and memory. He argues that while we commonly claim that we take and view photographs in order to remember events or occasions, the act of photographing selects particular moments to remember. Attention is placed on the photo as a memory-containing object such that the other moments not photographed are forgotten. (This is why I don’t take photos at concerts…)

    Batchen, Geoffrey. (2004) “Forget Me Not Photography & Remembrance.” Van Gogh Museum.

    I don’t have cites handy, but I remember browsing some stuff in applied cognitive psychology on the generation of false memories from photographs.

    As far as the PIM literature goes, the issue of non-identical multiples—the 18 blurry or bad pics you took of your cat before you finally got the good one—is seen as a challenge. As available storage continues to grow, there is less pressure to weed out that which is not “good,” and tools do not make it easy to go through, compare, and weed groups of similar photos (though this seems to be changing).

    Anyway, the implication is that many people don’t delete the “bad stuff.” I know I don’t. I try to, but I lose interest or get behind. Also, if I have a blurry or otherwise cruddy image of something, and no other better pics of it, I’ll keep the bad one because it is better than nothing.

    Also, the proliferation of image capturing devices means that events are captured from multiple angles by multiple people. No one person has editing power over the images of an occasion. Usually it is only me who will delete the bad pics of me. Other people think they are hilarious or endearing (or useful for later embarrassment). So I feel secure that the world will not be denied crappy pics of me for posterity. ;-p

    What seems to worry archivists more than the delete button is Photoshop and its kin. If materials in the archive are supposed to be a record, and we cannot be certain the record has not been tampered with… what does that mean for the archive? Of course, people have been staging and tampering with photos since the beginning of photography, so this is not a new concern—just a growing one as the tools to do it become more mainstream and easier to use.

    But… I don’t know… Is the view of ourselves becoming sanitized for future, or will those who come after just think we were better photographers than we actually are? If we delete the photo of the cousin with the frisbee covering his face, and then take a better shot of him playing frisbee, what is lost?

    Looking around at snapshots on the web, I’d say that there is so much non-sanitized humanity left in our digital images that there isn’t much to worry about. Go to any personals site and look at the pics (I assume mostly digital) that people use to represent themselves as good-dating material… Oh the humanity….

  2. Terrell Russell | December 29, 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Kristina, that’s fantastic. I’ll definitely read through the Kodak Culture pieces.

    I echo the feeling about Photoshop – but a little less from the archival perspective, and a little more from the real-time reality-distortion perspective.

    As for other people posting pictures – I think we’ll get better as the norms around posting other people’s bad moments become more solidified. It’s rather the wild west at this point…

    Regarding your particular moments of hilarity being shared without your pre-consent… perhaps that’s more an issue of the friends you’ve picked :)

  3. Heather Bowden | January 28, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    This is. just. lovely. Dang. I’ve come to the right place.