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Memories are made of this

I joined Ancestry.com last week. I think my reason for doing this was a desire to place myself in an historical context, to see my life as part of some greater pattern or continuity. Thoughts like this have brushed against the surface of my mind in recent years but were given new impetus and urgency by my mother’s recent death. Before she died, she and I had found pleasure in looking at old family photos and I was very interested to find out the identity of the faded, blurred or poorly lit faces that looked out at me from those. It gave me an insight into the world she had lived in, the friends she had laughed with, the places she had been and the experiences that had contributed to making her what she was. The process was far from complete when she died and so I have a box of old black and white photos that pose questions I may never be able to answer now. What kind of person was my great-grandfather? How did first cousins come to marry back in the 1890s? Would they have been subject to the disapproval of contemporary society?

These thoughts and questions made me attach new importance to elderly relatives of mine that are still available to speak to. I spoke to my aunt and asked it she had any photos that might fill in gaps in the pictorial record that I was building of my ancestors. It was very interesting to be able to put names to the faces on old wedding photos and then to use census or births, deaths and marriage records to find out when the photos were taken or add more details to my understanding. A visit to my great-uncle is also on the horizon, and I look forward to sifting through his own photo collection. Will our own descendants have the same opportunity? I have cupboards full of paper wallets of photos dating back to the early part of the 2000s but then nothing. After that all my photos are digital, existing only in cyberspace and appearing on my phone/computer as though by magic, whenever I choose to summon them up. I wonder, though, whether their existence is sufficiently secure. Is the Cloud ultimately as safe as the drawers and cupboards that presently guard the visual record of my life? Perhaps I should one day make the effort to print out a selection. The problem is the indiscriminate nature of phone photography. The photos I might want to actually keep are mixed up with all sorts of photos of restaurant menus, event posters, tradesmen’s vans, documents and other random ephemera. My phone has an amazing capacity to put together slideshows entitled ‘Memories of Devon’ or such like, which present wonderful collections of holiday memories, hilariously interspersed with pictures of water meters or damp stains on bedroom walls. This certainly shows the limitations of phone technology but also illustrates the indiscriminate nature of modern photography. When I was at college, I learned to investigate the basics of the process by making a pinhole camera out of cardboard box. My early years with a camera found me constrained by the numbers of exposures on the film, twenty-four or thirty-six, depending on how much you had spent, and so one’s finger on the shutter hesitated until something memorable came into the viewfinder. Now, with digital photography, there is no such constraint and I wonder if our descendants will have problems with investigating the photographic record of our lives. There are tens of thousands of photos on my phone, I suppose. What happens to them when I shuffle off my mortal coin? Will my descendants be able to access them and if they do will they simply be overwhelmed by data overload? It may be a problem, but at least it won’t be mine!


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