Photos & Memories

Photos & Memories

Philosophy May 29, 2012 / By Mike LaBossiere
Photos & Memories

An examination of physical photos and digital images in the context of memories.

A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one's youth can be hard to shake.

While a non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between an historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be "better"), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.

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