Photographs & Memories

Posted on July 10, 2012

When was the last time you got your photos printed? I’ve taken over 17,000 digital photographs since 2003, but haven’t printed more than a dozen of them. This worries me because, as Jeff Rothenberg said, “digital information lasts forever—or five years, whichever comes first”. While I’d love to have hard copies of my memories, who has the time to filter through all the duplicates and don’t-cares to find the best shots?

There was a natural limit to the number of photographs you could fit on a roll of film, and the number of prints you could fit in an album (or shoebox). So between taking fewer photographs and throwing out all the blurry, dark and badly-cropped prints, our photographs were naturally curated into small, browsable narratives. Digital photography soon removed those limitations; we’re taking more photos than ever, of things that we wouldn’t—or couldn’t—have photographed before, and we’re able to share them—instantly—with everyone. But how many of these photographs will still be around in 25, 50, or 100 years? We need a more natural way of curating our huge (and growing) photo collections into browsable narratives, so we can commit them to analog media for long-term storage.

Passive curation

Curation is time consuming. Picking the ‘best’ photographs requires painstaking comparison, weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of each, and predicting which will mean more to you in 20 years time. Also, curation tools are very rational. Apps like iPhoto let you give photographs a star rating, but how do you rate memories? We all have good memories and bad memories, sure, but I’d have a hard time giving them a score out of 5.

Human memory isn’t rational. Memories are rarely truly lost: we remember some things vividly and other things vaguely, but even forgotten memories aren’t gone forever. The more we think about something the better we remember it. Things we’ve long forgotten can be recalled by thinking about other, related memories. Memory is our mind’s way of curating our past experiences to present us with the ones that are most relevant to our current situation. We need to curate our photo collections, but since curation is a time-intensive task (and our tools require us to apply rationale and logic to something that’s subjective and squishy) we don’t do it. We need a more passive way of curating our photographs. We need something that doesn’t require extra effort on our part, but which filters out the junk and causes the most important photos to naturally rise to the top of the pile.

An idea

What if every time we looked at a photograph the computer was counting: one… two… three… And recording how long we spent looking at it into the photo’s metadata? Just as our mind pushes the memories we think about most to the top of the pile, photo apps could filter our collections by the amount of time spent looking at each photo. Not number of views, but actual time spent looking at each photo. By simply looking through our photographs, we’d naturally spend more time looking at the interesting ones, and passively curate the best of the bunch. To view the highlights of a holiday, simply set the filter to show just the top 20% of photos in that collection. To remind yourself of things you’d forgotten, filter the bottom 20%. None of the photographs would need to be permanently deleted, they’d just be filtered out until we wanted to dig a little deeper. If an unimportant photo accidentally gets left on screen for a long time, there could be a ‘forget this’ button, that would reset its ‘view duration’ value. You could then easily print the top 10% to commit your most important photographs to analog media for long-term storage.

This is all just an idea, and I have zero proper research to back it up, but I’d love to give it a go. Unfortunately I have no idea where I’d start writing plugins for iPhoto (or any other app for that matter), so if you have any ideas, please get in touch!