Exercise 3: Family photos

Family photos are often cited as being the possessions that people would most want to save from a house fire. Why do you think that photographs are such a significant part of our lives? Write down how you feel about photos – or videos – from your family’s past.

I am touched every time I see someone, and especially someone old, gently shuffle family photos around, almost caressing them as if they were real people, and at the same time remembering episodes, facts, details of their past lives. I think that photographs are very powerful tools to keep us rooted, to help us retell our own stories and make sense of them, and to help us not to forget and reframe what happened in new ways as we and our family and friends get different, grow older or die.

I find that photos have a double nature: on the one side they help us to remember how people and things were, to bring them back from our past to our present, to prevent that they fade away, to make them exist, but on the other side there is also an implicit sadness in them because of course they make us remember that that past is lost, that our present will change too and that we, our family and friends will be gone one day. And in this regard photos act as a ‘memento mori’, in a similar way to a vanitas painting.

Photographs are also certainly powerful doors to our ‘involuntary memories’, as Proust called the memories that occur when something encountered in everyday life evokes recollections of the past without our conscious effort (Wikipedia, 2017). Looking at a certain photograph may then trigger chain associations of memories, thoughts, daydreaming that pop off in our minds and establish unpredictable connections and lead us sometimes in unforeseeable directions. And in this process we make up stories, we reinterpret what happened in our own life, we make representations of what we remember. So in a certain sense photographs may help us in creating our own storytelling, I think.

Another thought is that family photos can be personally very meaningful to us but also tell other people who we are, reveal something about ourselves and our families, be socially ‘talking’, often beyond our own will and understanding. In time they can become documents of a way of life, of a period of time and of a place, thus taking on a documentary value, as shown by the very interesting Daniel Meadows’ Free Photographic Omnibus project (Meadows, ongoing).


Will this archiving be affected by the digital revolution? Do you have images languishing on your hard drive that you keep meaning to process? Is flicking through images on someone’s phone or digital photo frame as potent as looking through an album or sorting through a box of photos? Or is it better?

I am personally worried about what will happen to all our digitally stored images if we don’t find ways to adequately organize them or ‘save’ them in the form of good old traditional prints. Today home computers, tablets, smart phones or memory sticks have replaced the family albums as storage sites for photos and they can easily get lost or erased. It is also difficult to imagine that one day people coming after us will be really able to retrieve them, scattered as they are in all our devices.

There is also frankly an overflow of too many and often useless or redundant images of ourselves and our vacations, homes, pets, meals on social media like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etcetera, and we keep producing more and more everyday, without having the time and the possibility to keep an eye on this immense production, so presumably many of these shared images will get lost in the flood or erased when a social media ceases to exist. Furthermore as soon as we share images we lose control over them, we hand them over to others and to whatever use they might want to put them, so in a certain sense we do not possess them anymore, there are not anymore ‘personal’.

Perhaps the digital revolution marks a passage from the traditional personal and private preservation of memories by means of photographs and family albums to a sort of communal sharing and exchanging of images and life experiences that belong to everyone and that all together make up a commonly-owned gigantic visual communication network.

Given the uncertain future of digital storage, who is seriously interested in preserving individual memories for the future might give a good read to an informative article in The Guardian published in 2016 that explains how to rationally organize and safely store digital photos for future use (Schofield, 2016).





Wikipedia (2017) ‘Involuntary  memory’ [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Involuntary_memory (Accessed 17/05/2017)

O’Hagan, S. (2015) ‘Daniel Meadows: the photographer who championed ‘the great ordinary’ In: http://www.theguardian.com 25.09.2015 [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/25/daniel-meadows-photography-society-ordinary-butlins (Accessed 17/05/2017)



Schofield, J. (2016)  ‘What’s the best way to organise and store my digital photos?’ In: http://www.theguardian.com 23.06.2016 [online]

At: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/askjack/2016/jun/23/whats-the-best-way-to-organise-and-store-my-digital-photos (Accessed 17/05/2017)


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