Preserving our photographs – are digital photographs set in stone?

The Rosetta Stone. A fascinating portal to the past.

A shard of stone, painstakingly chiselled with a now ancient Egyptian system of hieroglyphics – at a time when they were still very much understood. A tiny glimpse into a long disappeared world, all the more fascinating for our lack of recorded information about it.

Fast forward two thousand years, and we live in an age of digital abundance. Indeed there is so much information, we are struggling to manage the good from the bad. We take so many photographs that many will never be printed, or even viewed. Many photographers in these modern times may never have created a physical copy of any photograph they’ve ever taken. But they’ll have taken many hundreds more than our parents’ generation did on film, just 30 or 40 years ago.

As I wandered round the British Museum, I watched the visitors taking photographs of the Rosetta Stone. Hands held brightly glowing digital devices up towards the ancient carvings. The technology of our times hovered so close to the craftwork of old. An endless stream of glowing, mass produced modernity orbiting around a single, lone relic from the past.

But perhaps that’s not the most ironic thing of all. For I wonder if, despite the abundance of information we have, we’ll manage to preserve any more of it now than those ancient societies did two thousand years before us.

We have to be so careful that the sheer amount of information, and sheer number of photographs we take, doesn’t work against itself. As technology moves on, and the information continues to increase on a mind-bogglingly exponential level, perhaps the vast majority of our photographs will end up buried deep in the digital archives of the past. Only accessible by long redundant technology, or worse still – lost forever. I wonder if, strangely, the easier it is to create a photograph – the easier it is to lose it too.

There’s something incredibly satisfying about a high quality, printed version of your photograph. I’d recommend it. And there are so many options.

Frame your favourite photograph and hang it on your wall. Create postcards out of them. Make coffee table style photo books – anyone can do this online these days. You can even print your photos on metal, clothing or wood. The possibilities are growing all the time.

But don’t just do it for yourself – do it for future generations.

I love to see photographs of life from past years – and by that I mean before the age of digital photography – because there’s so much less of it, and it instantly transports me back to a time and place long gone. In two thousand years, people may be quite interested to see what we got up to all that time ago.

Maybe I’m worrying over nothing – but what I do know is that a well preserved book of photographs may last for many generations. As for all our digital photographs and files – well, I don’t think any of us truly know the answer to that yet.

Ironically, the old technology – hammer and chisel, pen and paper – may end up being a safer, longer lasting way to record our lives than the new.

So let’s look after our photographs, and make sure our best memories can still be seen in the years to come.

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