Saturday, February 9, 2013

Are We Losing Our Memories?

Are we losing our memories?  I know I am, but that's because I just turned 47 and I don't remember things like I used to.  But that is not what I'm talking about here.  What I want you to know is that there is an amazing irony that is playing out right now and it's robbing us of our collective memory, our history.  Sounds scary doesn't it?  I don't mean to be dramatic, but it's true.  Hear me out.

When my sister passed, I inherited some boxes of old family photos.  I've really only scratched the surface of what's scattered loose in old Schlitz boxes, folios from long gone photography studios and the cracked pages of photo albums.  There are hundreds of images.  Photos of people I can identify and some that I can not.  It's a reflective thing to look through these images of days gone by made even more so by the loss of loved ones.


The legacy of family pictures made me think about the history that all photography captures.  I thought of my own children and the thousands of digital mages I've made of them in their short lives and wondered what will happen to those photographs.
 
I started poking around on the Internet and confirmed the obvious.  The number of photographs made has risen at a remarkable rate.  Four times as many photographs are taken today as just ten years ago.  That makes sense.  Instant gratification digital cameras, high quality cell phone cameras and a resurgence of DSLR use among consumers means a camera is always at the ready.

Social media is the home for most of these images.  In fact, the largest photo archive in history has been created in the form of facebook.  A truly amazing amount of imagery resides there. Last year, Facebook noted that 3,000 pictures were uploaded every second.  That's more than 250 million images every day totaling 100 PB (100,000,000 GB) of photos and videos online.  Instagram, barely two years into it's existence, estimates hosting over1 billion images from it's 40 million plus users.   Add to these numbers the many, many images sitting on people's digital cameras and cell phones that never make it off the devices and it seems like technology has brought us the ability to cherish these memories forever and the preservation of the story of our lives is more secure than ever.

Facebook is holding over 10,000 times the 14 million images curated at the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.  And there's the rub... while more images than ever are being created, will they be around?  While I wish Mark Zuckerberg much success and longevity, facebook could end up like many Internet companies... out of business next year.  Or at least irrelevant.  Think MySpace.  With the explosion of digital media housed on social networking sites are we just a bad day at the office away from losing our collective history?

If this isn't resonating for you, think about a practical example... Ken Burns' profound documentary "The Civil War".  We've all seen it and, except for the history majors and civil war re-enactment types in the group, it probably serves as the basis of our understanding of that period in our nation's history.  But where would Burns have been without the visual documentation that is the basis of the documentary?

I make this point not to spread gloom and doom.  And I'm no luddite... I'm fully on board with technology.  I don't shoot any film images anymore and my hundreds of CD's are  now on a hard drive.  I'm writing a call to action.  There are so many things we can do to hold on to the amazing documentation that the digital media explosion has created.  Join me in ensuring our visual legacy is protected.  Take a look at the list below and do at least three of these things this week.  The Ken Burns of the year 2063 will thank you.

1.  Don't be content to let your  photos sit on your cell phone.  Get them to a hard drive and print a few.  Even if you throw them that Schlitz box I was talking about.

2. Print an extra copy and give it to a relative or friend.  They'll feel great getting the image and think your swell for doing it.  

3. Understand that digital media isn't going away and figure out how you will archive it.  Back up your computer and make sure your photos are part of that back up.  Anticipate that the computer you're using today won't likely boot up someday.  File formats can change as technology grows.   Realize you'll need to migrate this archive as technology changes.  If you have photos online, then the same applies.  These services will change and disappear so be prepared to move your photos and have a back-up.

4. Make a book.  Sounds like a big deal, but it isn't.  It's easy and fun.  Five years ago I used a service called Blurb to make a hard cover book of photos of my son and called it "Boys' Life".  I have two sons now and"Boys' Life Five" rolled off the presses in 2012.  In hindsight, I'm so glad I started this tradition to preserve the best photos of my kids in a printed medium.  I know they will appreciate it long after I'm gone.  I can't  recommend doing this enough and I highly recommend Blurb.



5. Hire a photographer to make portraits of your family and buy prints from them.  It's a great way to support a local small business and you'll love the result.  Better yet, do this annually.  If you don't like the traditional portrait on a painted background, that's ok.  Maybe you hate how you look in photos. Don't let that stop you.  Photographers are there to make you look good and in portraits of all different styles that are natural and reflect your family as it is.

6. If you have a chance to contribute to a photo archive project, do so!  There are some great preservation projects out there.  For example, my hometown has a long legacy as a paper mill town and Plymouth State University has started an amazing archive of images called Beyond Brown Paper.  I've found pictures of both my grandfathers on this website.


My paternal grandfather Joe Viger is on the far right.


Joseph Urbain Ruel, my maternal grandfather.  I don't know why I know my grandfather Ruel's middle name.  But Urbain is so beautifully French Canadian, I had to include it.

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