Photographs are important historical objects, both as antiquity in themselves and in terms of the insights they contain. I learned a lot during my History MA from scouring old photographs of 20th century America and have always appreciated their value as source material. Photographs in their physical form have long since been in decline since the advent of digital cameras, however this has in no way diminished their value as historical evidence. More recently though, there has been a shift in the nature of photography that suggests that this may soon be the case.
The beauty of old photographs is that they all, for the most part anyway, genuinely meant something to those who took them. Film cost money and developing cost money, and as a result, people only took photographs that were worth taking. These photographs were, first and foremost, the preservation of a moment worth remembering, and secondly, worth sharing with others. Digital cameras however removed the financial risk from photography. No longer were people burdened with spool limits, development costs or the chance that the pictures “just didn’t come out properly.”
Camera-enabled smartphones and social media have taken this a step further however, and the emphasis of photography has shifted to focus primarily on sharing, and secondarily on memory. Facebook is the least explicit of these as photos are uploaded to albums that can be ordered and organised for ease of access at a later date. Photos uploaded to Twitter and Instagram however, although they remain accessible to the user, tumble endlessly down a timeline with no easy means of retrieval, making them almost as momentary as their subject material. The stratospheric rise of Snapchat however is the real cause for concern. This is an app that allows people to send a photograph to another user, to whom it will only be visible for a set period of time before ceasing to exist for all parties concerned. As a result, Snapchat has created a new type of photograph, one that is deemed worthy of sharing, but not worthy of preservation.
This is a worrying trend. Having had the pleasure of both entertaining and educating myself through photographs at university and in museums and galleries, it is a sad thought to consider that 21st century photographs may not provide similar experiences for future generations. The concern is not that photographs will become exclusively time-limited objects, as with Snapchat, but merely that people will cease to view them as personal treasures. Rather than a snapshot of their own history, they will become more often than not, brief amusements solely for the entertainment of others, and quickly forgotten about thereafter.
Obviously this will not be exclusively the case. There will always be photographs taken for the sake of art, professionally, and even personally to memorialise people, events and situations. However thinking about the photographs I have learned from in books and exhibitions, the most useful and engaging often tend to be those casual snaps of everyday life that people now seem to disregard. Being un-staged and genuine, these were the most revealing sources of social history one could hope for. These moments are now captured within apps that erase them within minutes or are casually deleted from hard drives to make room for more important things. I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the photos within the care of the University of Glasgow archives, and they are wonderful historical documents. These photos were physical treasures to those who entrusted them, that is why they did so, as are those in the collections of museums and galleries across the world. But how will these institutions continue to acquire photographs if people won’t keep them for themselves, let alone pass them on at a later date?
The answer for me is simple; the photographs now have to be collected at an earlier stage. If people are going to share photographs and forget about them, museums must ensure that they are members of the initial “shared to” party. The trouble here however is separating and collecting those photos that are worthy of actually being collected. I read in the Museums Journal back in June that more information is uploaded to the Internet every ten minutes now, than there was during the entire period between 2003 and the beginning of human history. Within that, there are 17 million “selfies” uploaded to social media every week. Self-portraits are as useful as any other historical source, but you can only learn so much from each one, let alone seemingly endless duplicates. The trick will be for museums to somehow filter the gold out of this torrential stream of user-submitted data.
A photo sharing network created by Aaron Straup Cope could potentially provide the solution. Provisionally titled “Oh Yeah, That,” the name is almost dismissive of what could be a wonderfully valuable tool. From the details on his website, the platform when launched will function as follows:
- Users upload a photo to the site, which then remains private and unseen for 12 months.
- Once the year has elapsed, the user’s photo is viewable to them, with the option to make it public to other users, or to delete it.
- There is no “friends,” “followers” or “likes” features, so the photos alone are the focus.
By removing the instantaneous nature of photo sharing, “Oh Yeah, That,” in theory would encourage people to take more consideration over what they upload. In the same vein that many of the photos taken by people on phones these days, would not have been should they have incurred film and developing costs, neither would a user wish to be disappointed by some trivial, pointless snapshot after waiting 12 months to be able to share it with the world.
Also, by enforcing the 12-month waiting time, the platform shifts the emphasis from “sharing,” back onto the “memory” aspect of photography. Once the year has elapsed, the user is allowed to experience a memory from 12 months previously, and only then do they have the option to show it, or not to show it, to others. By applying such a condition to the sharing of a photo, the platform reinstates the idea of taking a picture worth taking. The only difference now is that the condition is time, rather than cost. Finally, by removing the gimmicks of acquiring “followers” and “likes” by sharing photos, the emphasis is placed back on the pictures themselves, rather than them existing merely as a vehicle for social ascent and self-gratification. Again, this helps create a network of shared photographic memories that are worthy of such a practice.
These are the photographs that have been so valuable to museums and galleries in the past, and are the photographs that they must continue to seek out within an ever-saturating pool. In a world where photographs can be taken and discarded with equally inconsequential ease, this will become more and more difficult. A platform such as “Oh Yeah, That,” provides a viable solution to this. These are the networks that heritage institutions should seek out, where photos are submitted only if they are deemed worthy of at first being taken, and then still considered worthy of being shared after a full year has passed in which to consider the issue. Platforms such as this help recapture the magic of the photograph, and will help institutions continue to capture the minds of their visitors via this medium in the future.