Do digital photos make our memories precarious?

Adam's first screenshot of his Facebook photo count. A week later he discovers tens of photos have gone missing

New Media specialist, photographer Clement Adam was taken by surprise when he discovered that during a course of a week his photo count on Facebook had decreased by 31 without any prior or subsequent notice. The observation was part of his Master’s Thesis Preserving the Digital Shoebox: Investigating Backup Strategies of Personal Photographs at the University of Amsterdam. The loss of images could have easily gone unnoticed if the researcher hadn’t paid attention to the number of photos previously. Furthermore, the images missing were not recent additions, making it harder to pinpoint which images were missing. The case demonstrates the precarious state of digital photos stored online. In addition, Adam’s research has found that majority of people are concerned about the future of their digital photographs in general.

Photography has been going through dramatic changes in the last decades due to

Adam made the second screenshot just to discover that 31 of his photos had disappeared

the introduction of digital technologies, however the perception that personal photographs serve as means of preserving and refreshing memory remain unchanged: overwhelming majority of the participants of the University of Amsterdam’s study have said that personal photographs were of major importance for them, with 91% of the respondents saying they cherish their past memories, and 69% stating that they wish the future generations to be able to access their photo collections. In short, digital or not, photos are still all about memories. The fact that there are over 1,396,358 photos with ‘memories’ tag on Instagram speaks for itself. 

As the wish to preserve photos (i.e. personal memories) remain unchanged, the advent of digital technologies has transformed the ways people manage and archive their photographs, triggering uncertainties concerning the appropriate way of storing images, the study says. One might be able to take virtually unlimited amount of digital photos, however chances are that they will either get lost in the vast amount of files in the photographer’s hard disk, accidentally be deleted by the owner, disappear due to hardware failures, or become unreadable because of format incompatibility.

While the majority of the photos are now taken with digital cameras, 56% of UvA’s study participants said they were more likely to lose digital images rather than printed ones, 20% said they were more likely to lose printed photographs and 24% believed both printed and digital photographs had same chances of being lost. Overall, the findings of the study point to a general awareness on the precarity of digital storage: a staggering 70% of participants declared that they did not trust free online storage services to keep their images secure. Among those, 44% answered by “No, but I hope they are secure” which indicates that these are the ones using free online storage to backup their images, according to the research.

Clement Adam states that sharing and reproducing capabilities of digital technology seem to indicate that the images can be kept forever, however the actual practices of personal photography have raised many concerns especially on the privacy, copyrights and sustainability of digital images. The author has decided to focus on the latter: sustainability, because it is an under-researched subject compared to other concerns such as privacy and copyright.

Full research can be retrieved here.

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