Picture This Paradox

I have 1000’s of photographs everywhere – In my phone, on my computers and cameras.

Facebook, Pinterest, Text Messaging, and Instagram: pictures are everywhere. We are all flooded with photographs. And we’re taking more pictures now than ever before because digital is cheap, and pictures are everywhere. In the past five years, it’s estimated that more photos were taken than all the previous years combined. I know that I certainly have!

Sadly enough though, almost none of these photographs will survive beyond even this year because recent pictures are only good for the moment. The moment a baby sits, or crawls or walks for the first time, the moment when parents capture every single thing their new baby does so that others can share in those moments too.  These moments when we want to show off anything new, so we take out our phone, and we take another picture. Then, in a week none of these pictures of past moments have any real meaning, and so they get deleted to make space for other pictures that also have little meaning the following week.

So what will become of all these pictures that are being taken?

99% of the photographs taken today are very soon going to be completely lost to us because digital images are no longer important enough to most people to keep them in a printed form.

I used to live in a film only world. I bought a roll of film and took our family photographs. I had them developed and printed.  I put them in photo albums or photo boxes. We looked at them, and we treasured those memories. They were a sliver of our lives and for many of us, if some catastrophe hit us, those very photographs were the one thing we would run to save first. The wedding albums and photographs that represented our lives this far, and we salvaged all of them that we could.


It is estimated that only .00001% – 1 out of every 100,000 photographs – taken today ends up being a printed photograph! The digital world means we can look at them on a computer screen, and if we don’t have that particular screen, we have no picture. Each of us probably has countless pictures randomly stored, with no organization or way to locate them. Maybe we have made some effort to organize them in the past, but it seems like such an overwhelming task.

Another relatively new problem with photographs is that over the years, the technology has changed so quickly that many photographs taken only five or ten years ago was stored on media that is no longer supported. How many of us have boxes of floppy discs tucked away somewhere, with no computer capable of looking at them any longer? Or shelves of home movies with no way to watch them? In less than five years, our current formats are going to be obsolete because they will change. USB drives and DVD’s will become the floppy disks of today. The technology of tomorrow won’t support the older file formats that are in use today.

The photographs we shared on social media or uploaded to photo storage websites are only temporarily saved, but none of these are permanent solutions to being able to look at our photographs. So sadly, many of the memories that we captured today just won’t be available tomorrow.

So where are our old pictures today?  In a drawer or box someplace, we’re not sure where, but we know they’re around somewhere!

Add to these the many memory cards filled with photographs. Each of those represent a small slice of us or of something that was once an important part of our lives. Some are in formats so old that we have very few options if any to look at them because technology has changed so much to be able to see them. Technology has made them obsolete, and technology will continue to make them obsolete in the future.

Even when we go to a professional photographer to have our pictures taken, they give us a disc where we can take them to a print shop to get prints made.  No film, no prints from the lab needed to ‘see’ them. So where are those discs today? In the same drawer or box, but not in an album or on the wall? When we remember a childhood photograph of our now adult son or daughter and we have to say: “I do remember that photograph, but I have to look for it. It’s on a disc or a card, or maybe on a memory stick I think….maybe I still have it… where did I put that again?”.

My winter project this year has been to get all those photographs gathered up and organized, labelled, printed, digitalized and backed up. All the family photographs of the past, all of the genealogy pictures I’ve collected over the years – everything organized and saved, once and for all. It has been more difficult to do than I expected – but am I ever glad I did it! If I’d have waited any longer, I shudder to think of what I may have lost.

So, in my house, I now have photographs. Printed out on paper AND saved in the latest format. Most of them are just plain 4 x 6 photographs of our family on special occasions and vacations, or doing something silly or especially just doing everyday things. These are the little pieces of our lives where we can open a photo case and the memories of our lives spread out before us. They make us happy or sad, and we tease each other with the old styles of our hair and our clothes. Our lives right in front of us in a printed image that anyone can see. There is no more wondering “is this file type still supported?” – I know that I’ve done far too much of that in my lifetime already. We can see the photographs and feel the emotions of that time in our lives as if it just happened. These are the photographs that we protect however we can when some disaster strikes and they are the ones we start looking for first when it does. The big screen TV with all the bells and whistles; the leather furniture; all our latest gadgets – these are not the things we think of to save. It’s always the memories of our lives that become the thing we search for first.


So being a part of this digital revolution, where are YOUR photographs?  Are they are stuck on a disc somewhere or stored out in the cloud somewhere? Why didn’t you purchase that $500 canvas to display in your home that a professional photographer created for you? That is a “one of a kind” work of art and a heirloom for your family to have, to remember that little part of their lives. It is something that will pass from generation to generation, and the only visual way your family in the future will see what you looked like and the love and emotions you expressed when that image was made.

Eryn & KaleighThis photograph is one of those pieces that I had done of my daughters, now finally hanging in my living room:

Let’s all look around our homes now and dig out those DVD’s, memory cards and USB sticks. Let’s go and get them printed and re-formatted into something where we can see them right now. Let’s replace the labels on them from things like “img0732” with something meaningful, like the names of the people in the photograph, the date and the event pictured in them.

One day our grandchildren will ask to see pictures of their parents. If all we have to show them is an obsolete storage device that no longer works, they will have no visual family history.

Digital photography is making us the “most photographed generation without a photograph in 10 years”. That makes those photographs unimportant because digital is cheap, and cameras are everywhere. If it just doesn’t seem that important right now, think again.

Get those photographs printed out, backed up and labelled because lost memories are the most expensive thing that we can lose.


About Researching Family Roots

My work with genealogy and writing includes the usual collection of family names with dates and places, but goes beyond these. By using personal evidence along with cultural and oral history, I explore who people were rather than solely names without faces, and to give a voice to my ancestors. I include the many great website links I use to research Canadian, English, Irish, German from Russia and Australian transportation ancestors. My Canadian research is in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, Canadian Military and War Brides; English research is in the ‘Black Country’ and Yorkshires of England. Links to my favorite Genealogy Blogs are included.
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