I heard a dire prediction of what will become of today’s children, the most photographed generation in history.
It didn’t have to do with the potential psychological impact of being hyper-documented, although those are legitimate worries.
“The irony is that kids will end up with little visual documentation of their childhood because it will be lost to the cyber world. The 1s and 0s will just go away,” said David Carson, one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Pulitzer-prize-winning photography staff. He’s also the father of a much-photographed 9-year-old daughter.
“They are going to lose all this history,” he said. Technology changes so quickly, it renders older formats obsolete. Quantity overtakes quality. Performance – mugging and posing for the camera – replaces capturing candid moments. And losing it all doesn’t require a house fire or natural disaster: All it takes is a technological glitch, a lost phone not backed up, a corrupted hard drive.
It’s the paradox of the times we live in: Our children grow up with hundreds of thousands of photographs of their childhoods, yet so few they will hold or carry with them.
We rely on our visual documentation as our memory fades. But the physical experience of revisiting memories has changed. The boxes of photographs stashed in the closet or envelopes shoved in drawers are replaced by albums on social media or camera rolls on our phones. Scrolling through pictures on a screen is viscerally different than thumbing through them in an album or box. At some point, your eyes glaze over digital pixels.
Part of the problem is sheer volume. In the olden days of film (when I was growing up), taking a photo had to be more deliberate and conscious rather than reflexive. The camera came out on birthdays, holidays and vacations. When digital cameras eliminated the cost of film, the floodgates opened. Smartphones provided yet another leap forward. Consumers are expected to take 1 trillion photos this year, according to InfoTrends’ 2014 Worldwide Image Capture Forecast. More than 740 billion of those images will be taken using smartphones.
It’s not unusual for parents to have thousands of digital images of their children from a single year.
And photo purging is hard.
“You don’t get rid of bad pictures,” Carson said. “People rarely value a picture enough to print it out.”
But as much as we like to believe in the promise of forever in the cloud, veteran photographers are skeptical. Carson doubts if he can still open pictures he took on a digital camera 15 years ago because the technology has changed so much.
One photo editor said he has CDs from the late ’90s that won’t open anymore. New systems aren’t equipped to read old formats.
Of course, hard copy photographs are susceptible to fires and floods, but so are hard drives. And, as recent hacking scandals brought to light, there are privacy concerns in the ether.
So what should you do?
Create an electronic archive and backup, but also take advantage of print deals. Carson suggests periodically picking a few dozen photos that you respond to emotionally and printing those out. Throw them in a shoebox under the bed, or put them in an archival-quality album.
Before ordering a ready-made photo book, check the archival quality to see if books ordered online will hold up decades down the line. Keep in mind that even CDs and DVDs go bad over time.
Give hard drives as gifts. Back up your own drive, and keep it in a different place. I store the negatives of my wedding photos in our bank safety deposit box.
And consider how much documentation of your own childhood you actually revisit.
Perhaps it is time to rethink the photographic legacy we want our children to inherit. I’ve decided to create four books or albums in a set for each of my children: one for babyhood, another for the elementary school years, then middle school and high school.
This sort of collection seems so much more manageable than a hundred thousand digital images in a virtual gallery. But I imagine we will store (and back up) all the excess images, as well -- just in case we want to meander through a virtual attic one day.
Parents are documenting this generation with gusto; it’s just as vital to protect those memories.
After all, preserving the story of someone’s life is about more than clicking, sharing and gathering likes.
It’s a priceless gift.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.