Snap-happy but easy come, easy go

FLEETING IMAGE:  Turnbull Library photography curator Natalie Marshall says while it is the future, digital heritage is notably fragile.
FLEETING IMAGE: Turnbull Library photography curator Natalie Marshall says while it is the future, digital heritage is notably fragile.

With people sharing pictures of their daily breakfast, it seems ridiculous to suggest we are leaving our lives undocumented - but that is exactly what experts are warning about.

Digital photography and smartphone cameras have created an easy-come, easy-go environment when it comes to photographic records, a Samsung survey has found. While we are not saving or archiving them, we are snapping away at an incredible rate.

Today, 3.5 trillion photos had been taken, 3.4 trillion of them since 2000.

The British survey of 3000 people reported up to a third of these photos never even saw the light of a computer screen, remaining forever on memory cards and microchips. While more than 290 million shots - of people's meals, children and pets - are uploaded to Facebook and Instagram every day, less than a quarter of all snaps make it into traditional photo albums.

The Wellington photographer Simon Woolf found these numbers a little conservative - his estimate was that less than 10 per cent of images made it off the memory card nowadays and that people printed only a fraction.

"It's the instantaneous side of things, but then they forget about it," he said.

While the public's interest in photography is sky-rocketing - even spawning classes for photography using smartphones - Mr Woolf said he saw less respect for images than in the past.

"People are very flippant about photography. They don't realise a lot of their history is being lost when they don't print.

"There's going to be a big gap in society's historical records."

Natalie Marshall, the Alexander Turnbull Library's photograph curator, thought the National Digital Heritage Archive, launched in 2009, would help to keep New Zealand's digital heritage safe. The archive stores CDs, DVDs and digital materials, including images.

"But I do think we do need to be conscious if we don't take steps to preserve digital collections, they could well be lost a lot sooner than we lose a photograph album, for instance." As anyone who knew the pain of accidentally deleting a whole holiday's memories by pushing a few buttons, digital mementoes were much easier to erase than physical ones.

Corruption and degradation of digital photographs were also harder to spot than with a physical copy, Ms Marshall said.

The loss of someone's life-long photography collection was primarily a personal or family tragedy but it also impacted on national heritage and collections like the library's. "Obviously we can't collect everyone's family photos. But it is is how we document ourselves and our lives."

There was also little sense in capturing something never to see the light of day, she said. "Photographs are made to be seen."

Ms Marshall ensured her own personal digital collections were edited and clearly labelled, much as she would with a physical collection. But Mr Woolf stressed people needed to go one step further if they wanted memories lasting a lifetime - by putting together albums of high-quality prints.

His advice might be relevant for the young - the Samsung survey found 13 per cent of participants aged 18 to 24 had never used an album.

The Dominion Post