Oh, What A Picture

25th April 2014

With a camera now standard on just about every mobile phone, photography has never been more popular or more accessible, but the results are largely here today and gone tomorrow. Claire Moulds asks whether we’ve seen the end of the family photo album…

When did you last print out a photograph? And I mean a ‘proper’ print that you wanted to frame or put in an album?

The sad truth is that while we have never taken as many photos in living history as we do now – on average 1.9 billion photographs are taken each month in Britain – the advent of both the digital camera and the camera phone means the process has ceased to be a method of capturing a precious, never-to-be-repeated, moment and the resulting image has now become a commodity product. After all, what makes a photo special if you’ve already got twenty just like it on your phone?

It’s now become so easy to take a quick snap and share it with friends that we’ve become less selective about what we shoot. Instead of documenting the milestones in peoples’ lives for posterity or sharing a few great images from our travels, photography is now all about updating our friends on what we’re about to eat, the ‘funny’ face our pet dog is pulling and a thousand other trivial occurrences that we won’t remember, let alone care about, 20 years down the line.

Gone are the days of painstakingly composing the perfect picture – crucial when you had just 12, 24 or 36 shots to play with – along with the anticipation of getting a roll of film developed, the magical moment when you opened the pack to review the end results and the subsequent hours spent showing them to family and friends.

Admittedly, the ease with which images can now be taken and reviewed means that there’s no danger of missing out on capturing that once-in-a-lifetime moment thanks to a blurry shot or random thumb or chopped off head, unlike the old days when all three were a frequent feature of the pack of photos that you collected from the developers. Meanwhile, services such as Facebook mean that we can now reach a much wider audience than with a traditional album. However, is what we’ve gained compensation for what we’ve lost?

For example, how many photos on your laptop or your phone provoke an emotional response? How many have you cared enough about to transform them from being a one click digital memory to a permanent fixture in your life, be it a canvas that’s hung on the wall, a photo book or even a personalised mug for your morning coffee? The average camera owner now has 1,200 photos saved on their PC but you can guarantee that, if forced to choose, owners would describe only a handful as being of sentimental value.

Moreover, our obsession with intangible, electronic images is now jeopardizing the future of the once prized family album. While some may scoff and dismiss such records as insignificant in the modern age, the fact is that, for generations, the family photograph album was not only a way of documenting someone’s life and, of course, the ongoing expansion of the family tree, but was also a way to pass on a family’s oral history.

Who amongst the adult population hasn’t sat as a child with parents or grandparents, thumbing through a hefty leather tome, the sheer weight of which underlined its importance and the amount of history it covered? Who hasn’t asked who someone is or where a shot was taken, or laughed at the fashions? Crucially, who hasn’t been told an anecdote relating to one of the pictures? You see, that’s the thing with photo albums: they are more than just a collection of images, they are a trigger for hundreds of stories from the past that younger members of the family can learn, absorb and then pass on to their own children. And as the years move on, old photos are a fantastic way to connect with older members of the family especially when their memory is failing: a picture from fifty or sixty or seventy years ago is a great way of prompting stories and keeping the past present.

Having grown up with books of photographs – both ‘official’ family albums and my own personal ones filled with snaps of me and my friends – I am appalled that 87% of 18 to 24 year olds have never used one. I recently stumbled across my own albums from secondary school and university and it brought alive so many memories, things I’d forgotten in the 15 years since I graduated, and it wasn’t just the actual moments that were captured that came flooding back. Seeing a favourite old dress brought back memories from other nights out. When I showed my old school friend she, like me, pored over every shot, devouring the details, each of which provoked separate anecdotes, stories and observations.

In all, there were probably a hundred photos to look through. How will that scenario unfold in another 15 years’ time though? Will one friend say to another, ‘let’s look back over our school and university pictures on my computer… there’s only 5,000 of them to go through’!

People also argue that sending someone an image in an email or a text message is the same as giving them a physical photo, but it just isn’t. This Christmas I sent my husband’s aunt some prints taken at her son’s wedding, which included one of me and my husband with his two older brothers and their wives. To my surprise and delight she rang the minute she received them and said that she had never had a photo of us all together – and that as her older brother, my husband’s father, was no longer with us it was simply the best Christmas present anyone could have given her. With the photos on display, she felt she now had us all close by.

Would an emailed image or a link to an online photo-sharing site have generated such happiness? I think not.

One of the most worrying side effects of this trend for storing our images solely on our laptops and phones is the number of people who don’t create back up files. In fact, 38% of camera owners admit to failing to copy snaps from their PC to another device. In an instant, these visual records of our past could be gone forever, thanks to a virus or software or hardware failure. I will always remember my friend being devastated when her home computer ‘died’… and on it were stored the only copies of every photo taken of the first year of her baby boy’s life. Thankfully, a specialist firm managed to salvage all but a few, but it was a stressful and expensive lesson and she now backs up all the time.

Admittedly, if a family photo album were to be lost, only those old images of which there were negatives of could be replaced. However, one of the other rituals that families once shared was to give other family members copies of photos for their own album, so even if a negative doesn’t exist a bit of digging might reveal that a relative has a copy of the same print.

While I don’t do it all the time, I love looking back at albums. Photos offer us such a priceless window into our own and our loved ones’ history, especially when memory alone struggles to recollect an event fully. For that reason I will always have an album ‘on the go’ and I encourage you to do the same, if not for yourselves then for your children, grandchildren and your grandchildren’s children, so that they can know something of the lives of those that went before them. They’ll be grateful. Inheriting a few books of pictures of the past has to be infinitely preferable to acquiring an out-of-date laptop on which are stored thousands of unorganised images.

In our quest for instant pleasure many things are being casually discarded with no appreciation of the consequences – don’t let a visual record of your family’s history be one of them.

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