Where Have All the Photos Gone?
Today marks the start of week four of our European adventure. Last week, we were able to slow down a bit. Norbert had a work engagement in Sofia and I came along to keep him company. I’d never been to Bulgaria before and I never say no to traveling somewhere unknown. While he spent his days at the office, I camped out in the hotel, responding to emails, surfing the internet, and writing. Don’t worry – we didn’t spend all of our time in front of computers. We meandered around town in the evenings, had several spectacular meals, and stayed on a farm in the mountains for the weekend (playing with puppies!)
I used this downtime at the hotel in Sofia to do some digital organization. After several weeks of traveling, my camera was bursting with photographs that needed tending to. Lately, my modus operandi when it comes to photographs is to file them away in my hard drive and share the ones of interest with various friend/family groups on Google photos. But it hasn’t always been this way.
Since I was in high school, my unofficial role during family and friend gatherings is group photographer. I love taking candids of the people I love. In doing so, I’ve created a visual portfolio of my friends throughout the years. I take photographs because I enjoy it, and I like that I provide a service for my loved ones—documenting the good times.
It’s one thing to snap photographs, but if the photos simply live on your camera or hard drive, what good are they?
Ever since the good old days of LiveJournal, I’ve used social media as a platform to share my photographs with friends. When Facebook became the reigning platform, I switched over. Since 2005, I’ve made LOTS of photo albums – I’m not sure how many exactly but it’s probably in the hundreds. I’ve uploaded thousands of pictures from my life – college shenanigans, family holidays, gardens and farm work, far-flung trips, artsy moments, random adventures with friends, and everything in between.
I was a dedicated Facebook album maker. Once I’d accumulated enough photographs over several weeks or so, I’d go through them and decide which ones to post online. I organized them into seasons or themes, turning these photographs into a story of sorts. It was a way for me to document my life, to create a digital album the way my mother used to make real albums of my sister and I growing up. Sometimes, I’d click through these albums if I was feeling sad or simply in need of some reminiscing. Scanning these photographs from adventures gone by, however mundane they might have been—picking flowers in a field or snapping a photo of a flamboyan in full bloom on my drive home—brought me joy. Facebook gave me a platform on which to share these photographs with the world, and it gave the world a chance to have a look and share their thoughts. It was an exchange, one that –I think – brought smiles to the viewers as well as myself, the album maker.
From time to time, I’d deactivate my Facebook in order to disconnect from my online life. This was always temporary, but several of my friends would complain, mourning the loss of their online photo albums that disappeared when I deactivated. One of my friends decided to download all the photos I’d taken so that she could have them on her computer and therefore remain unaffected by my whimsies.
No matter how fed up I got with social media, I never deleted my Facebook account – and my photo albums are the main reason why. I couldn’t bear to lose all that effort! A while ago, one of my hard drives was destroyed and I lost many years of photographs that had been stored on it. Although I was devastated, I found comfort in knowing that so many of those memories lived on in my Facebook albums.
Not everyone feels the way that I do about uploading pictures on the internet. My family in Belgium, for example, would never post photos online as I was in the habit of doing—unless it was on a password protected site. They have a very different relationship with privacy than we do in the U.S. In fact, they’ve asked me on several occasions to take down photos or videos that I’d posted of them online, and I was happy to oblige. In this era of privacy violations and data collection, who doesn’t want to err on the side of caution?
A few years ago, I began to reevaluate my online existence. I became more aware of what I posted on social media and how it might be used against me or my friends. I started changing and minimizing my relationship to social media, dissatisfied with the psychological addiction that I was developing towards the platforms, Facebook in particular. Meanwhile, social media was also changing. New platforms like Instagram were providing different ways to share photos online. During my twenties, as I matured into more of an adult, I began to let go of old habits, like making photo albums and posting them to Facebook. When I took a yearlong hiatus from social media, this habit disappeared completely.
But what has taken its place? Have I started printing out photographs and making real albums instead? Have I taken the joy that I used to take in writing captions beneath joyful memories? Have I found a new way to share these photographs with friends who might also enjoy seeing them? The truth is, I haven’t. Nothing has taken its place. Where I once used to find joy in clicking through online photo albums with my family in Belgium, showing them images of my life back in Miami and telling them tales about my travels, I no longer have a way to do such a thing. Whilst my friends and I used to leave comments beneath our favorite photos, that doesn’t happen as much anymore. Instead, we post photos in our WhatsApp groups and respond accordingly, but the photographs don’t live in an accessible photo album where one can relish in the memory-making that is possible online. It saddens me, for instance, that my wedding photos do not exist anywhere online; I cannot share them easily with a new friend or with a faraway family member who could not be in attendance. I made an effort to keep them off the internet for the sake of privacy, but I lost something in doing so.
Don’t get me wrong. From time to time, I make a Google photo album and send the link to the friends who are present in the photos, but this doesn’t have the same kind of communal vibe that is possible on Facebook. In the past few years, I’ve made a few private Facebook photo albums, visible only to the people in the photographs, and uploaded photographs onto a blog, but again, something was missing.
I’m not a visual artist but I love being behind the lens, tweaking the elements to make a beautiful photograph. And I love the attention and intention that goes into crafting an aesthetically pleasing photo album. I miss culling the best photographs from my collection and curating them into a visual story. It’s only now, many years after losing this habit, that I realize the many ways that it fed me – artistically, creatively, and emotionally.
Have a joyful week!