At the start of this exercise we were introduced to the work of Daniel Meadows. A self proclaimed documentary photographer, he has spent the past 25-30 years documenting the lives of ordinary people around Britain using photography and video.
His 1973-1974, Free Photographic Omnibus Project, saw him travelling around Britain in a Double Decker Bus, photographing anyone who was willing and giving them their photograph for free. In this video on his website, he considers what those photographs mean 25 years later (2007), he notes that the photographs he took, have developed a life of their own. Some have been shown around the world, in different newspapers and stories, some remained with their families or the people photographed originally.
I think it’s interesting to consider today where our photographs, particularly those online will end up. With the rise of sites like Instagram, it seems a new breed of documentary photographers has been born. Their images (mine included) are now floating around the internet, perhaps they will travel much further than we imagine, or be completely lost in the sea of similar images.
It hadn’t previously occurred to me that my family photographs were actually a form of documentation. I was unaware really of what this meant as a child, I grew up having my picture taken fairly regularly, on holidays, birthdays, family gatherings. Most of these photographs were taken on film cameras (inexpensive ones) and were developed into photographs. I can clearly remember the cardboard box all these photos sat in, inside a cupboard in our hallway. Strangely enough though few of these photos ever made it out of the box and onto the walls of the house. For as long as I can remember the same family portrait photo (taken at some professional studio in the 1990’s), has hung on the wall in the sitting room.
Last summer my mum started to say she wanted to organize the family photos, the box they were in was looking tiered and the photos rarely saw the light of day. I volunteered to help with task and was promptly left in charge with most of my families photo’s. There were hundreds of them. Looking through them was an experience in itself – there were moments of recollection, times of embarrassment (some photos of myself I would like to erase), some photographs which included family members I no longer recognized, places I don’t remember and times I’d like to forget.
Looking at old family photos now I feel a whole series of things, especially now I’m married and am part of a new family of my own. Now I am with my husband considering what photographs we want in our house, pictures of family or friends that we want to remember or celebrate by putting them up on the walls of our home. We certainly take a different approach to my parents, our home is becoming full of photographs.
I want to be careful how I say the next few sentences, because this is a blog, I’m aware anyone could read this and want to be sensitive towards my family, past and present.
Some family photographs are painful to look at, especially photograph’s of myself as a baby being held lovingly by family members I do not remember or do not feel able to connect with now. Perhaps hardest of all are the photo’s of my cousin who committed suicide in 2012. At one time looking back over family photographs was a fairly carefree nostalgic experience. Now I see traces of my cousin everywhere, I see him smiling as a child, and remember when life seemed simpler. I see him in the background, of family gatherings and can’t help but wonder how long he felt the way he did. The photographs have become a window into something I never saw before.
Sometimes because of this and other things, I wish these photographs did not exist. They are a painful reminder of people lost, of old wounds and of broken ties. Other days I am thankful we have these reminders, that my cousin was with us, that he did impact our lives, that he cannot be erased. They suddenly become powerful in way I had not considered.
There are some photographs of old friends I have thrown away, purely because I do not need a physical reminder of something from my past. Photographs are powerful as connection points to memories, and not everything in my life needs to have an anchor point into my present life.
Will archiving photos be affected by the digital revolution?
My husband and I have lots of photographs stored on hard drives, and a fair few on our phones generated through Whats App chats or groups. These are like little storehouses for our photo’s, which we come back to. I don’t feel that all these images need to be printed out, some of them are and will be. Some are nice just as reference points, some don’t have particularly strong meaning now but are stored for a future day. Personally I think the digital revolution makes it easier to store a large number of photographs, and perhaps makes me (maybe others) better curators of what is valuable enough to be made into a physical photograph.
I don’t think the digital revolution will cause photographs to become obsolete, in the family home or in a public or creative setting. Perhaps the digital revolution will increase people’s appetite for something tangible and tactile, a photograph on a wall feels somehow more permanent than a photo on a hard drive. I also don’t believe the two methods need to be in competition, there is a place for physical collections of photographs and for digital collections.
I’ll leave my thoughts there for now, as I’m in danger of writing an essay on this subject!