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Modern Photography Is Changing How We Remember Our Lives

Our shared photographs now create nostalgia in real time

Photo by Rachael Crowe on Unsplash

II remember, as a child, pulling my grandmother’s yellowed Polaroids from the dusty shoebox I’d found high up in her closet. That afternoon, we sat next to each other on the couch, pulling old photos from the box one by one.

Although she couldn’t recall exactly where and when each one was taken, every photo triggered a story. My grandmother brought the images to life. We laughed and we cried as she relived every picture, and I learned more about her than I’d ever known before. In the late-evening glow, I watched my grandmother’s hands shake as she reluctantly set each print back into the shoebox.

Photography has drastically changed since then. Today, the moment has hardly passed before it is seen by someone many miles away, someone we might not even know. Our photos can speak instantly to the world, and our reminiscence happens in real time.

TThe story of the modern camera is interwoven with our need to create, record, and remember. The camera began redefining nostalgia in 1888, when Kodak released a small and simple personal camera for amateurs: “You press the button, we do the rest.” The camera quickly became indispensable for recording and curating our lives. Precious moments were made into keepsakes, while moments we no longer wished to remember were discarded. Film photography peaked in 1999. That year, consumers around the world took 80 billion photos.

Ubiquitous smartphones with their built-in cameras have, for the past decade, helped us produce more photographs than ever before. An estimated 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017, and more than 3 billion images were shared across social media every day.

Our photos can speak instantly to the world, and our reminiscence happens in real time.

Few could have foreseen that our relationship with photography would become so intimate. The obsessive recording of our lives even seems to affect how we experience and remember the world. We see more moments through the camera, and we spend even more time looking at our phones, watching the lives of others.

Phones and experiences go hand in hand. We walk through the world looking for moments to capture, which in turn shape the way we experience our environment. Given how many photos we now take, it’s no wonder some worry it impedes on “real life.” Many of us have been told to put down our phone and live in the moment, but there is also real science to back this up.

An intensive social media habit can impair the way we store memories, researchers have found. A 2018 study confirmed that participants were less likely to remember objects they photographed than objects they simply observed. This is known as the “photo-taking-impairment effect” and was first identified in 2014.

The researchers found that remembering through photographs might eclipse other forms of understanding. When we watch reality unfold through the lens of a camera and on our screens, we’re taking in just a fraction of the experience. In other words, while we’re visually engaged, we miss out on other important sensory information.

Photo-taking can also be a form of cognitive offloading. Reassured that the device is doing the hard work of recording the information, we offload part of our memory onto its digital memory. “You don’t need to remember as well because you know the camera can ‘remember’ for you,” says study co-author Jennifer Soares, a doctoral candidate at UC Santa Cruz. “Like when you take a photo of your parking spot number and don’t bother to try to remember it.”

Yes, we’ve all done that. But for the most part, we don’t take photos to remember details. “Some photographers would argue that their photo-taking isn’t cognitive offloading,” Soares says, especially if they consider their work to be art that is designed for precisely the opposite.

And yet the outcome of this age of photographic abundance has been quite unexpected: While helping us remember our experiences, the volume of photographs and the platforms on which we see them also make it easy to forget them. Snap, share, scroll, repeat — pictures have become ephemeral, sliding down an endless stream, mostly unnoticed and rarely to be encountered again. In this way, photography has actually returned to its very origins.

TThe year is 1290, and Arnaud de Villeneuve has gathered a small group of people in a darkened room. They huddle around a spot of light on the wall that shows an image — not sharp or bright, but enough for them to conjure up murderous scenes of war and, later, the hunting of an animal.

Villeneuve is a practicing physician and a showman in his leisure time. To his audience, though, he’s a magician. The picture he creates was at once distant and intimate. Viewers exhaust the meaning from every image before it disappears. When the presentation is over, the small crowd is enraptured. Whispering to one another, they muse on Villeneuve’s mastery. It is an event the people here will not soon forget.

Villeneuve was no magician. He was a proto-photographer with a camera obscura, and yet he gave his audience what was perhaps the first glimpse at our photographic future.

TThink of your parents’ collection of childhood photos — that terrible haircut, immortalized between the frayed edges of the print. The camera turned subjects into objects for the future and already of the past: memories, good and bad. Photographs were taken less frequently and in limited quantities. Few had the option of cherry-picking between minute variations of the same shot. Those that were taken were kept and collected, and unless we chose to discard them, they were permanent.

When images are easy to make and easy to share, they come to be less about permanence.

The easier it became to shoot and share, the less each shot was valued. We’re now overwhelmed with so much nostalgia that the photograph has lost much of its ability to affect — we don’t care about most of the pictures we scroll past. It’s no wonder our social media feeds use algorithms to help us decide what’s important.

Yet Snapchat, whose users send pictures and videos that quickly disappear, may be the catalyst for imbuing meaningfulness back into photography in a new way.

Nathan Jurgenson, author of the forthcoming book The Social Photo, wrote in 2013 that ephemeral photography was a cultural response to photographic abundance. The temporary photo, Jurgenson wrote, “inspires memory because it welcomes the possibility of forgetting.” In other words, the image’s abbreviated lifespan — its fleeting nature, or ephemerality — changes how it is made and seen. You post an Instagram story; it vanishes after 24 hours. This way, the photo becomes something more prized and conversational and something to be cherished in a new way.

Jurgenson told me that he draws a distinction between the traditional photograph as a permanent documentary object and the social photograph, which tends toward “ephemerality, playfulness, and expressiveness. When images are easy to make and easy to share, they come to be less about permanence.”

Social photos, like those on Snapchat, Jurgenson explains, “try to capture the experience of the moment, the what it’s like between the ears of the person making the snap.”

PPhotographs will continue to function in their traditional roles as documentary proof, as art, and as aids to our memories. Yet we’re increasingly seeing the world not just as something to freeze and capture, but as something to talk with. When the photo is as important as its context, the experience is different, and the moments are remembered or forgotten as such. The snaps I send to friends today are in many ways strangely similar to that nostalgic afternoon at my grandmother’s.

But perhaps this new era of photography is not unlike Villeneuve’s 13th-century spectacle. We share and talk with experience as we feel it. Photos are made into “Stories.” They make us 😂. They make us 😭. We type on them, draw on them, apply filters. We exhaust the meaning from every image before they disappear — just as Villeneuve’s audience would have done in that darkened room so long ago.

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