Losing Touch in a Digital World

BlogHer Original Post

"The fate of people depicted in a photograph and bringing up photographic memories for me is a kind of prayer and sighing."

--Jerzy Tadeusz Lewczynski

My birthday was earlier this week and I received a number of e-cards and a trickling of snail mail cards. Thus, my lifelong habit of taping my b-day cards to the wall – so that I may bask in the love every day – has been drastically altered.

Sure, the e-cards were swell, with their music and their convenience, but I do not appear nearly as popular as I used to. My mother, who traditionally sends a card with money in it, sent an e-card showing a grown woman shaking her PC, trying to get the money out of her mom’s e-card. No such luck for either of us.

Meanwhile, while foraging in my fridge for butter and/or a forgotten block of cheese, I came across a bag of undeveloped film. That’s right, film. It really took me back – specifically to February-May 2006. It was the last time I loaded film into my camera and I’m surprised how quickly I’d forgotten about it.

After moving all my belongings across the country, I realized the bulk of my material goods consisted of photos in shoeboxes, negatives in envelopes and way too many photo albums. Enough! I went digital, specifically for space-saving reasons.

My neighbor works in the Walgreen’s photo department and offered to process them for cheaper. As a former film snob, I would have never considered this – too risky, too lowbrow. Still, it was a good deal and it was only film, after all.

When I got the long-forgotten photos back this week, I can’t believe how much joy the prints inspired. Not just memories but tangibility. I simply do not touch photos anymore – they are now locked inside my camera or computer, downloaded, stored and shared without touching me. Sure, I’ve got a photo printer but it rarely gets used – and isn’t this why I went digital in the first place?

Immediately, I reverted back to my old habits. That is, dividing the photos into stacks, grabbing my glue stick and making photo cards to send out. People go nuts for this. I even found myself getting nostalgic over the errant fingerprints my clumsy handling had left on the edges. So retro!

Turns out, I’m not the only one feeling nostalgic. In response to Peter Plagen’s thought provoking piece in Newsweek, “Is Photography Dead?”, Regina Hackett of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer posted her own thoughts:

“What's threatened in digital photography isn't art. It's the personal record of family life. Until recently, people took rolls of film to be developed at the drug store. They got back packets of pictures, which they mounted in albums or left in piles in shoe boxes.

These images existed. Digital photography produces the illusion of existence. Fewer people bother with the hard copy, and it's the hard copy that matters.

Decades ago, Susan Sontag wrote that the unphotographed child suffered from a form of child abuse. As digital images fade from the family computer screen, the record they were supposed to provide disappears with them. Only the tech savvy will avoid this fate, and how many people does that include?:

Isn’t this the general running theme of technology? Isn’t it why we love it so? The other day, I ran some errands and on the drive home, realized that, thanks to technology, I had not a single interaction with another human. I scanned my own groceries, got some cash from the ATM and sent packages at the post office through a computer. It’s great, right?

Right?

Recently, I came across a wonderful photo project called Skarabej, an online museum of old family photographs. Site creators, Anton Petrović, Tamara Ražov and Gordan Orlić found most of the old photographs at flea markets, in old attics, basements or “junk heaps in Prague, Zagreb, Travnik and in Subotica. Smaller amount has been given to us as a gift or ceded for scanning by our friends or acquaintances. We are still looking for new photographs...”

Their goal:

“Although we collect we are not collectors. We would like to create an archive of memories of unknown people and events and make them available to everyone. No doubt, we are all going to be in forgotten, old family photographs.”

This sure gave me pause. Even within my own family, there are already photos of people long dead and forgotten, yet there they hang on the wall, as a testament of our ancestry.

Google Earth recently went up a notch when it recruited noted French photographer and environmentalist, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, known for his ‘Earth From Above’ shots. Yann, now 61, discovered a unique planet perspective in his 30s while flying over the Kenyan landscape in a balloon to study lions.

He then spent ten years carefully researching landscapes, flying over 76 countries and spending over 3,000 hours in a helicopter. The “Earth from the Air” project has taken him to Antarctica, Alaska, southern Argentina, Australia, Siberia and Africa. Now, nearly 500 of Bertrand’s amazing shots are part of the Google Earth’s lexicon of images.

“With Earth from above, I simply want people to see the Earth as it is today, as faithfully as possible. What motivates me is the impact a photograph can make within the framework of environmental preservation. The great novelty of our time is that mankind has the power to change its environment and I want my photos to testify to this fact so people can realise this.”

--Yann Arthus-Bertrand

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