After I posted "Mom may be gone, but what about all her stuff?" a reader asked about photographs, particularly in this digital age. Frank wrote that “this issue challenges me. How many people have properly stored their digital images let alone labelled them so they have meaning for future generations?”
It is an issue that has challenged me too. Being an early adopter, I got an early Olympus digital camera that took only 20 small 640 x 480 photos which I printed out and stuck on the wall of our cabin; 20 years later, the old Polaroids are perfect, the conventional photos are perfect, and the digital prints are faded and almost gone. I thought I had burned them onto CDs but I cannot find them; there is now probably close to a decade of my kids growing up that is gone.
My mom used to take family photos and throw them into all her lacquer boxes; I worried that it would take forever to go through them all. Then I found that my sister did that with mom over five years. She mounted and labelled them all and threw the rest away, so now we have two carefully curated albums of not very many photos — because film and printing was expensive, and people didn’t take that many.
Photographer Ming Thein writes about the few photos he has of his grandparents, and makes a good point about how it is really an issue of quality over quantity.
Those ten images of my grandma’s that survived probably did so precisely because there were only ten or maybe eleven to begin with; scarcity attached value, and value precipitated a reasonable amount of care….
I often think that our children or grandchildren won’t have much interest at all, being surrounded by thousands of images on Instagram and Facebook and they are totally ephemeral. I have wondered who will save our digital memories? before on MNN, but really didn’t know what to do. Because as Thein notes, unlike the era of the old black and white prints, we now have a technological problem.
It is said that the more advanced a civilisation, the fewer the number of clues it leaves to its passing and the details of its time; if you carve your art into stone, it’ll probably weather quite well. But if your art is on a digital medium that requires specialized precision equipment to read and decode, chances are it’ll never be seen again once the original creator loses interest – it’s just too much effort for anybody without some degree of self-interest in it.
I have negatives from photos that I took when I was 13 years old and started playing in darkrooms, and that can still be printed. But digital storage media keep changing; even if I found my old CDs I no longer have a computer with a CD drive, and CDs don’t last that long anyway. I store everything now on the iCloud Photo Library which I love; I can find people by name, find places by location type in “bike” and get every photo with a bike in it. Google Photo is apparently even more sophisticated. But Apple storage isn’t free, my family doesn’t have access to them all, and they could all disappear when I do and nobody pays the data bill. There are also many people who are not comfortable keeping their photos on the cloud because of privacy concerns. (That’s why I don’t use Google Photo; as Tim Cook of Apple notes, “when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”)
Professional photo organizer Cindy Browning (yes, there is such a thing, there is even an organization, the Association of Personal Photo Organizers! Who knew?) tells the CBC that people should have a “digital hub” — one place that they make sure all their photos go, where you download camera and phone photos, whether in their computer or on a separate hard drive. That should be backed up in at least two other places, one of which is kept somewhere else in case of fire or flood. (I let Apple’s iCloud Photo Library be my hub but really should have a backup or alternate to that.)
There are other, more permanent solutions; Yours.co takes your photos and burns them onto an MDISC, a special DVD with a “rock-like” core that they claim will hold your data for a thousand years. But that assumes that you will have a DVD drive in a thousand years.
Another service worth looking at is Forever. It’s a cloud-based service that you can pay for by the year, but it gets really interesting when you prepay a chunk of money for Forever service: $299 for 10 GB of storage, about 2,500 photos, or $499 for 100GB, about 25,000 photos. They promise to keep your photos for 100 years beyond your death.
They take the majority of the money and invest it in the “Forever™ Guarantee Fund (PDF), the world's largest permanent investment fund dedicated to content preservation.” I have read the entire investment policy and it seems legit, but like any investment, there are no guarantees, and who knows if there will be anyone around to keep the site going, but they are certainly trying to give as much comfort and security as possible.
But in the end, none of this works if we have war, rapture, meteor strikes or any of the other disasters that might wipe out the internet or the grid. I keep thinking that we should perhaps print out the best dozen photos we have on archival paper, frame a set of them and pack some small prints in our bug-out bag for when we have to hit "The Road." And I suspect that if I picked very carefully among my 23,000 digital pictures, a dozen is all I would really need to define a life.