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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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