In the not-so-distant past, from time to time we devoted time to managing our personal photographic archive. That involved developing a film when we ran out, selecting the photos that had turned out well and, perhaps — there were already those who were procrastinating — putting together a more or less worked album. The order was decided, which photos would go together, their arrangement on the page and some text was added so as not to forget what we were seeing. Like a small and exclusive exhibition that was kept on a shelf and was taken out from time to time to show or to remember.
Digital photography first and especially mobile photography later turned all of that upside down. We take photos all the time. Some of us share them on social networks or by instant messaging. Sometimes we print and make albums, but the bulk of our personal images stay in the digital world, where organization is not so easy.
“The systems that currently exist are not working as a long-term photographic management system,” explains Andrés Fraga, photographer and doctor from the University of Santiago de Compostela. Your thesis It was precisely on this topic, the photo album on mobile devices (that is in fact its title), and the idea came from his own experience. As a photographer, he efficiently and smoothly managed the collection of images he did for work. However, on a personal level, he was unable to do so. “Professional systems are not viable, they are very complex and you need a lot of time dedication that you normally don’t have for your personal photos because there are many more,” he says.
At the beginning of this digital photography revolution, the main challenge was more basic: the preservation of the photos, the storage. With crashing hard drives, lost memory cards, and lost phones, it was possible to suddenly run out of year-long photos for not having backed up. Now, with cloud storage, those situations are weirder. The tricky thing is to order and give context to all those images.
“The typology of photography has changed. We have many more photos and new typologies: captures, photos that come to us via WhatsApp, we take photos outside of the traditional events that were planned and even choreographed, like the typical cake photo ”, explains Fraga. The main digital services try to solve this chaos by making the albums for us.
Google Photos introduced automatic albums in 2016. Without the user doing anything, the application generates albums of events that it considers to have value: a trip, a dinner with friends, images that share something in common. In addition, almost all of them also try to fix the memory function of photos and albums with notifications that remind you that three years ago you took a photo of your cat. This is all very convenient, but it also has its problems. “We are leaving it to an algorithm to decide what things we want to remember. And we know that the algorithms are western white men. The algorithm is not neutral, ”says Andrés Fraga.
Anyone who wants to can solve this by dedicating their time and effort to create their own album in their favorite photo application. However, if that album has been created in services like Google or Apple Photos, it also has a B-side. “People think they have that information, the organization, but we only have our photos, not our albums”, Fraga points out. That is, we can download our photos whenever we want, but all the contextual information that we have entered (or that the algorithm has entered) will be lost. “It’s as if we had someone at home who helps us make photo albums and order our collection, but when they leave, they just leave us a box full of messy images,” he sums up.
The new role of photos
“If photography was an object of memory, now it is also an object of exchange and communication,” explains Elisenda Ardèvol, Professor of Arts and Humanities Studies at the UOC. This new function is what makes us, for example, share photos on networks or by instant messaging. “We not only save the moment, we tell the other that we remember him, that we are having an unforgettable moment, that we are getting bored, that the food is exquisite, that we are having fun: we communicate about our immediate present. We build a personal narrative with our photographs to consume it in the now and share this present with others through social networks ”, says the expert.
In any case, the reasons for taking photos have always been very varied, as pointed out by Patricia Prieto Blanco, PhD in Philosophy and expert in visual cultures. “Diversity is something that has always characterized our relationship with photography, because as a medium it has been inserted in many contexts of our social lives: as legal evidence, as a marketing tool, as a form of visual arts, as public testimony” , lists. “Right now the cameras accompany us wherever we go, and this new relationship of proximity, accessibility and affordability with technology precipitates new uses and perhaps encourages us to review established practices,” he explains.
As for the albums, the expert adds that they are actually a socialization tool and quotes the art historian Martha Langford: “the album is a meeting point, not an encyclopedia.” As such, they have not disappeared, they have only changed place and shape. Fraga gives as an example the typical scene of a person showing another photos on their mobile (“now we always carry the album with us”, he points out). Prieto mentions an anecdote from his research on the experiences with digital photography in migrant families, “A portrait of an end-of-year gala that traveled from Ireland to Spain on WhatsApp and then on foot in Spain in the pocket of a relative intermediary, since the recipient, an excited grandmother, did not have WhatsApp”.
The long-term challenge
All these new ways of using and sharing personal photos, however, still have a pending task: to make us feel that those images will continue to exist for several decades. In the research carried out by Andrés Fraga (in 2015), 89% of those surveyed claimed to see the photos they took with their mobile phones again. However, 54% assumed that those photos, which they did not consider irrelevant, would end up disappearing. “It is an assimilated frustration. We take it for granted that the photographs that I do see and have value are going to be lost ”, explains the expert.
The perception of security is found by resorting to pre-cloud technologies. At the time of the survey, 76% saved their favorite photos on the computer and 28% printed them. Do any of them become part of an album that will be kept on a shelf and one day our descendants will dust off? 59% of users did not make any kind of physical album with their digital photos at that time. However, that leaves 41% who do resort to physical albums as a method to ensure a certain posterity. Fraga does not believe that the percentage has changed much, because “if you were still making a physical album then, you may continue to do it now.” We continue to entrust the long term to the tangible, even if it may deteriorate or burn in that fire from which the first thing we would try to save would be a photo album.