Uncategorized #7 – Save Your Family Photos

February 16, 2020 in Uncategorized

The baby is asleep, the radiators just kicked on, it’s cold outside but we just got back from a nice long walk through the park. It’s Sunday again and I’m writing to you once again from my perch over the Q train in Brooklyn, New York. This past week I went to Miami where it was dramatically nicer, but I do really love being here, right now, despite the cold, despite the gray, and despite the wet. It’s all good.

Previously

Last week we took a deep dive into email and productivity. This topic came up in Miami as I spent a good deal of time chatting with museum staff workers about how they do their work. I always ask questions like “Do you have your work email on your iPhone? Who told you to do that?” These are borrowed directly from a really great book called Make Time by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky. If you are having trouble finding enough time in the day to do the things you want, or if you find yourself stressed out at the end of the day because you never finished a bunch of stuff, this book may help. There’s also some really good hints in there about managing your mobile devices so that they don’t overtake your life!

In most museum settings, I find that everyone always complains about the typical “overworked and underpaid” issues, but the one thing I also hear, often, is that there just isn’t enough time. In most cases there’s too many non-productive meetings, and lots of random tasks popping up throughout the day. So, we spent some time, in a meeting, trying to unpack how all this works, how it gets codified in office culture, and what we can try and do about it. The answer? Baby steps towards better behaviors as an organization together. It’’s a slow process to unlearn things that have been burned into your brain, it’s even harder to do this collectively as a team. But it’s possible!

This Week

Miami was a nice escape from the dreary world that New York City has to offer in early February. It was in the 70’s there, and I think it even broke 80 at one point. People were already complaining about the humidity, but not me. I was just happy to be wearing short sleeves outside and feeling the warm sun on my face. This was following a fun bout with food poisoning I experienced on Sunday in New York, which followed me to Miami and stayed with me until well into Tuesday. 

The trip was really productive though, and I was reminded at a number of moments about the wonderful nature of museum people. I heard some really great “leadership moments” during an all staff meeting. It’s incredibly powerful to hear the director of a museum talk about the importance of internal systems and how the museum looks at these things as investments rather than a necessary evil. I also noticed how tightly nit the staff at this particular museum seems to be—enthusiastic and passionate about their work across all departments and levels. It was a very positive vibe. 

On the way home I finally watched Joker. I really enjoyed it, although it was a bit intense at moments on the plane. Joaqin’s performance was incredible, as usual. I recently re-watched “HER” and couldn’t even imagine how this could be the same person portraying the smiling lunatic. I also really loved the movement of other Jokers who sort of built up this following on their own. Everyone is a Joker on some level. Anyone of them is The Joker. It was better than I had expected.

Upon my return I also got to see The Lumineers in concert at Barclays Center thanks to tickets purchased over a year ago by my thoughtful wife. We got a sitter and had a night out just down the road. The concert was great, but I realized I need to remember to bring ear-plugs to these kinds of things from now on. The group has greatly expanded their production since I saw them a couple years back at the Prospect Park Bandshell. This performance involved a complex stage set, moveable setups and a crazy video installation thing both above the drum kit and behind the stage. It was a lot to track as a viewer and was pretty interesting to see—a far cry from a bunch of musicians on a stage in the park.

I tried to find photos of that concert in the park from a couple years back and didn’t have much luck. I’m sure they exist, but I don’t really remember when it was. So… photos.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a really long time. I mean, I’ve written about this topic before in a number of ways, but this is something that is just always on my mind.

Save Your Family Photos

Where do you even begin. Well, here’s the thing. In March, on my birthday, I’ll be in Sweden again to speak at the Collecting Social Photos conference at the Nordic Museum. Our studio has been working with them and a number of other museums and archives in the area for the past two years to develop a web app for collecting family photos and contributing them to a museum. It’s kind of like Flickr, but for museums, and then the first question is always “why don’t you just use Flickr.” So I think it’s time to talk about this a little more in depth.

Here’s the thing. We used to take a lot less pictures. But the pictures we took are still somewhere. Now we take thousands and thousands of pictures, and they are all in constant jeopardy of disappearing forever, as if they never existed in the first place.

In fact, it wasn’t long ago that people would show up at a museum with a shoebox full of family photos and donate them. Museums would happily take the shoebox and add them to their archives for another day. Ok, not always, but often enough that this really simple exchange worked. The museum would wind up with an asset that told a story of a place and a time. 

Today of course all our photos are somewhere on our phones, or worse, in the cloud. There is no shoebox, there are no prints, and one day someone will just forget (or be unable) to pay the cloud storage bill and poof, all those 1s and 0s switch back to being just 0s—gone forever.

Think of all the Vivian Meirs out there who have yet to be discovered at some estate sale—who’s treasure trove of photography isn’t hidden away in some trunk or suitcase, tucked under blankets in a closet, but instead, stored on Google Photos or iCloud, queued for deletion. 

Imagine for a moment if Robert Capa, instead of loading up his Mexican Suitcase with rolls of developed negatives, had just uploaded everything to Dropbox. What’s the likelihood anyone would have ever discovered any of it. What’s the likelihood it would have even survived a year after non-payment or forgotten accounts. 

At one point I realized I had accidentally created 4 flickr accounts, and had no idea what the status of 3 of them were. Just photos floating in space, waiting for the next sale of the company, for the next CEO to make a sweeping decision to delete anything that hasn’t been touched in over a year, or anything that doesn’t fit within the confines of the new free plan.

Flickr has been sold three times (probably more behind the scenes) since its inception. Once to Yahoo, then to Verizon (along with Yahoo), and recently to SmugMug. Who knows where it will travel next and what decisions will be made about the fate of your precious moments. 

There’s whole parts of the internet working on these problems, but they are mostly focused on preserving those prints and negatives from the time before. This is a good thing to do, but hardly the problem to solve. Those prints and negatives are in my opinion, OK. What’s really at risk are the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken on digital cameras since 2000. The trillions of photos we take each year, upload to our free plan, and forget about it.

Remember waiting for pictures to come back from the lab, thumbing through them and passing them around? Remember getting “doubles” so you could share them? These tactics were actually working really well for us. I still have the shoeboxes, my parents still have their photos from when they were little. There are albums that tell stories, and notes on the back, and yes, it’s hard to instantly pull up a photo—I actually have to go to their house to physically find what I am looking for, but so what? Isn’t that kind of a nice thing to do anyway?

And here’s the part where you say “but Micah, I’m smarter than everyone else. I have everything backed up and stored in multiple locations, and ready for a nuclear strike. No matter what happens, my photos will survive!”

Sure they will. Good luck with that. If I asked someone to open up my storage locker and locate my photo archive backup, I try, but I can’t really imagine how that would wind up with “here’s everything, I found it.” It’s literally a plastic bin full of random hard drives filled with all kinds of stuff, zero labels or instructions. Even if someone got that far, these are really just the backups of photos I’ve taken years ago. These days everything is on my iPhone, uploaded to iCloud and Adobe Cloud. A few months of non-payment and they’re all gone, cracking into my iPhone, trying to work out how to download the whole thing, make sense of any of it. This whole post is starting to send me into a panic attack!

The point of all this of course is that I think our digital culture, our histories and stories, are largely at great risk. Way more than we ever could have imagined when compared to their analogue equivalents. All one needs to do is switch off the power and all of this is just gone. It’s there, but it’s gone, no longer accessible, no longer viewable, all those 0s and 1s just vanished without a trace. Either that or our whole world has to re-write itself to be in service of preserving everything. 

Passing down history, generation after generation. Planning for a future where someone might even be able to make sense of anything—the simplest dumbest solution might be to just print everything out!

Collecting Social Photo 

So yes, I’ll be talking about all of this is in a hopefully more organzied and succinct way later next month at the conference in Sweden. Our platform is really just another kind of Flickr, but I think at least it helps to raise some questions around born digital preservation of things like family photos, and how museums and archives might play a role in working through these kinds of issues. In the meantime just remember to “always order doubles.” 

Playlist

This week I got into listening to the new album by Thom Yorke called Anima. It came with a 15 minute short film on Netflix. The film was pretty good, reminded me of a lot of things, like the very arty film “All Summer in a Day” but also a little bit of 1984. The music is good though—perfect for your next monotonous commute to work.

Reading List

I’m still working on Severance by Ling Ma. I haven’t had much time to get any reading done this past week, but I hope to find some time again soon. I’m also really excited to check out the Southern Reach Series by Jeff VanderMeer I saw the film with Natalie Portman last year sometime, and it blew my mind, so I sort of assume the book series is even better.

Epilogue

I realized recently that writing these posts is pretty hard, but very fullfilling. I’ve been trying to think about what their purpose is, if they should always have a single topic, if they should be a round up of things I recently noticed or news or whatever. So far, they are kind of a mishmash of thoughts, organized by a few headings. I’m curious what you think, so please reply. I’d love to hear from you!

How do you save your family photos? Whats the big secret we all need to know so they can be passed on to the next generation after you’re gone? Is there a secret trick, or s system? Do you have instructions hidden away for us? I know this is a little morbid, but what is it? Don’t you wanna tell us?!

Until next time, have a good week!

-micah


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