You and Me are History: Archiving the Future

23 Snaps Photo book

My lovely 23 Snaps Photo Book…

The other day, I was asked to produce a baby photo of my youngest child, and I couldn’t. With a wave of nausea, I realised that every moment I have recorded of my youngest daughter’s life, has been digital. And I haven’t been organised about it either.

I sat on the floor with the defunct hard drive that contains the Biscuit Thief’s baby pictures. The connection needed to access the photos is not compatible with my latest computer. Other photos are on a PC that no one, apart from cavemen, use anymore. The rapidity of change in digital technologies is blisteringly clear in the difference between the photographic record of my teenager’s life (born 1996, box of photos in the attic) and that of my second child (born in 2005, diddly-squat in the attic). This problem is big, and it’s getting bigger.

So I’m worrying, I’m worrying about history. But I’m also wondering about whether it matters that I haven’t diligently archived my family’s past. There were, after all, generations before photography, video and audio recording and we can only guess what our ancestors looked, moved and sounded like. Is my lack of a tangible record of my children’s past any worse than the edited histories we have received down the years? Whole chunks of information and images have been discarded over time, deemed unworthy of preservation on (usually) racist or sexist grounds. History has always been selective, and the recording of it highly subjective.

I’m thinking that we live out a strange dichotomy. We think we are in an era of information saturation; that we are recording everything, enjoying this weird intimacy over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels. But actually, none of it is tangible… “all that is solid melts into air…” said Marx of modernity. This intimacy is fleeting, a firework in the night sky, a brush against a stranger. There is a disconnect between what we share, what is evanescent and what has permanence. History feels precarious at the same time as being collectively experienced over social media.

My memory is lit up by palpable things; like my father’s handwriting on old birthday cards, or my aunt’s silk dress, still mapping the contours of her body. Nearly six feet tall, she must have been an elegant woman with exquisite taste to own such a dress. My great, great grandmother’s engagement ring reveals that the central diamond, cut in Europe, was at some point removed from its original setting and cast in another in New York in the late 1800s. It tells me more about her life than a photograph. Yet I long to see her, to know her face. I yearn to know whether it is from her that I get my freckles and strawberry blonde hair. I wonder about the quality of her skin and the way her mouth naturally set when she was unaware anyone was looking. Only a photograph can show me that.

Thinking about all this has inspired me to get my digital act together and create tangible histories by printing off photo books for my children. In search of solutions, I tried out 23 Snaps, an app and website which allows you to upload photos to a central server and share your photostream with invited guests. You, and anyone else you invite, can compile and order beautiful printed books, all from within the app. A friend of mine recommends Photobox, and every six months or so, she compiles and prints off another photo album. There are other services such as Jessops and Snapfish but I have yet to find a good way to preserve video. Any ideas? I’d love to know what works for you… how do you log your life?

9 thoughts on “You and Me are History: Archiving the Future

  1. I had exactly the same realisation when the shoe boxes of photos fell from their shelf leaving a collage of images across the floor; an array of memories up to a certain point in our lives after which there was nothing. The rest were in digital disarray on a series of hard drives, unedited and unseen. This began an annual task for me, a wintertime reflection, of sifting through a year’s photos and compiling a photo book. Our children have easy access to these photos this way and love the photo books, poring over them, adoring themselves, and noticing things in the pictures that I don’t see. The books have been the starting point for many an important conversation too. And when they leave home they can have copies (or the pdf).
    After trying many companies I have found Blurb to give the greatest scope for creativity and quality, although Photobox are good.

  2. Thanks Sara for this. it’s interesting that strange panic that happens when a whole swathe of digital photos can’t be accessed. You can’t swipe at the air and gather them up, there’s a feeling of helplessness. I still have hoards of photos and cards and other little sentimental things in boxes. Shoe boxes and drawers. And the rest is in an outbuilding, and I worry about it, thinking of the photos and whether they’re still intact. So, yes, they matter, they’re real. I think we still long for that. Sophie

  3. What an interesting article. Firstly, I noted that this seems like a place mainly for women and mothers, so I hope nobody minds me getting involved in the discussion?

    It was my Dad’s 50th birthday recently and I organised getting some pictures printed out of his childhood to put up around the venue. Ironically, it was my Dad’s obsession with organising and tagging his digital photos and scanning in old black and white photos that made my task so easy. I used to think that it was a bit strange to have such an organised log of your life. In some ways I still do, while it’s nice to be reminded of things I prefer the more subtle memories that you speak of in your blog. I also think that once you start making these archives, every future picture that you take becomes a bit more posed for and there is nothing I hate more than posing for a picture!

    Despite this, the pictures I printed and put up received such a warm reception and were such a point of discussion that I have seen a new found value in family photographs. Perhaps it’s that as I get older I become more sentimental or maybe I just forget more. I suppose watching a child grow up from birth to adulthood must be such an amazing transformation that you naturally want to record it…

  4. For my dad’s 60th birthday recently, we created a photo wall with photos of him as a baby, a schoolboy, a groom, a proud dad… Many of the photos had been backed with card and had names and dates written on by his parents. I can’t even manage to sort out photos from a single year and our computer is starting to die. Gulp.

  5. We have so many pictures of Little A on little discs and other pieces of technology, and at some point I really do want to create some proper albums….. it worries me that digital photos are so temporal, could get deleted in the blink of an eye, but then so can all material possessions in a house fire (shuddered at that thought). My Grandma had a suitcase of photos of my great and great great grandmother etc …. I used to love looking at them. I am very pleased that the high cheek bones run on my mothers side!

  6. This hits a note on so many different points – I often feel like this digital world we live in is so ephemeral and unreal, and sometimes wonder what I am doing occasionally playing in the space. When transitioning from PC to Mac we plugged in our external hard drive and lost everything on it that had recorded the pictures of our lives together pre-children (it was almost like it knew!) – 8 years just gone. Friends and family compiled a memory stick for us with every single image of us they could find, and some re recouped from FB, but the loss was huge. We felt so stupid for not having printed them out. This said, a girlfriend of mine religiously prints out every single one, and makes albums every year – and they live in the attic. Maybe one day they will at least have access to them to pull them out. Of late however I’ve been taking fewer pictures of my children – just because I want to be in the moment rather than behind a gadget. Of course there are exceptions, and I will be compiling those images I do take into a photo book for christmas – we used Blurb for our wedding album, so I guess that I will use them again. I do love looking at old pictures of family too – my face is a replica of my grandmother’s, a fact my mother finds quite eerie, but on the plus side she doesn’t need to pull pictures out of her mother when I’m near! xxx

    mama-andmore.com

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