“Don’t touch the photos,” my father says for the umpteenth time. But I can’t help myself. We are at the Family Reunion and spread in front of me are hundreds of black and white photos of my family. There’s my gorgeous grandma Lila, who I’d sit with in the kitchen for hours as she cooked; my grandpa Reed, who would parade me around the neighborhood whenever I came to visit; Uncle Shep, who made the best pancakes EVER; uncle Joe; great grandma Nancy; and many others.
I want to touch the photographs because seeing their faces makes my heart swell with love, my head spin with fond memories. These are the people who cared for me, protected me, scolded me for my own good, and hugged me when I needed it. These are the people who in some way are responsible for who I am today. With care, these photos will be gazed at by generations to come. Their identities may become less poignant, but their smiles and fashions–I love how the women wore dresses or skirts; hats and heels in most of the photos!–and youthful exuberance can be forever preserved in these 3×5 windows to the past.
Which makes me start thinking about the thousands of photos I’ve taken with a digital device in the last decade or so. Many of these images reside somewhere on a flash drive, or old computer or phone or in the ever-elusive cloud. Truth be told, however, I likely will never see the digital photos of my 40th birthday in Jamaica; or my younger brother’s wedding; or my nieces’ graduation again. Unlike the photos spread around my father’s hotel room waiting to be organized into photo albums you can actually hold in your hands, these visual memories are lost somewhere in the digital void. We think they will always be there, but is that really so?
In fact, the countless and random images of the digital world somehow just don’t seem to have as much value. I oftentimes spend moments of boredom going through my photo galleries deleting images that no longer have any appeal. Unlike the days when every shot had to count because film was limited–especially if you were shooting with an instant Polaroid! All of the photos of my two-year old great-nephew, save his nursery school pictures, are digital. Are we robbing him of the opportunity to look back years from now and laugh at his toddler antics (and ridiculous cuteness)?
This leaves me with a feeling of impermanence. In our technological quests for instant gratification, we lose that greater sense of longevity, connection, and in some cases integrity. Even beyond photos, our ability and effort to bond with one another is whittling down to texting and social media. And there is only so much bonding that can be done through a touchscreen or keyboard. I admit, I’m a texter and I have a social media persona that looks pretty damn good in pixels, but save my family and life-long friends, does anyone really get to know me anymore? But then again that level of detachment is safe and controllable and admitting this makes me a little sad. Maybe I should take a selfie to capture and edit this moment…