By John Herrman
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: It’s Almost 2019. Do You Know Where Your Photos Are?
In 2005, Yahoo acquired Flickr, the popular photo site. It already had a photo site, Yahoo! Photos, which was created in March 2000. But don’t worry, the company said: The two could happily coexist. In 2007, Yahoo announced it would discontinue that first photo service, and that users should move their photos to Flickr, which now required a Yahoo account to use. In 2013, the company announced that Flickr users would have a terabyte of space — for most people, an effectively unlimited amount — to store images for free. (“We want all your photos,” said Adam Cahan, a Yahoo executive at the time.) By then, digital cameras were ubiquitous and smartphones had gone mainstream. People were producing more photos than ever, but it still wasn’t clear where they were supposed to end up. Earlier this year, Flickr, now owned by Oath, a subsidiary of Verizon, made another announcement: It would be selling to SmugMug, a smaller competitor. By making promises it couldn’t back up, based on an advertising model that it couldn’t sustain, Flickr said, Yahoo had “attracted members who were drawn by the free storage,” rather than “lovers of photography.” This news came with a new default storage limit: 1,000 photos. Users could begin paying or take the rest elsewhere. A digital photo first uploaded to Yahoo at the turn of the century, in other words, when most people online were still dialing in to get there, and not once again rescued this year, may finally meet its demise. It would have had a better run than most. And here it is, almost 2019. Do you know where your photos are?
Most of us don’t, at least not exactly, or in terms that we fully understand. Holding on to pictures was, for most of the history of photography, a matter of material decay and physical storage. Are these prints fading, and how fast? Are they organized by year or by subject? Do I know where they are? To the people who took them, they were deeply valuable; to anyone else, mostly worthless. Their peculiar sort of pricelessness made archivists of regular people. The problem of what to do with ballooning digital photo collections, on the other hand, is perhaps the great unsolved tech support question of the last 30 years. In retrospect, well-intentioned guidance reads like a manual for the obliteration of memory. Hard drives die unpredictably. If you could produce a Zip drive in 2018, it would likely regurgitate whatever you fed it. CDs and DVDs rot, it turns out. The first services that beckoned us to what was not yet widely known as the cloud set the tone for what was to come. At the turn of the century a site called Zing promised, in a first, “free unlimited online storage” for photos. By the end of 2001, its home page had been replaced with an apology letter. But online photo collections kept growing — where else would we go? Newer, more credible services hustled for users. Storage practices didn’t get revised, they accumulated: Photos lived on old discs and drives, moving from site to site, cloud to cloud, from Photobucket to Flickr to Facebook and back, or maybe just waiting on ever-larger SD cards. (Those die, too.) “The thing I’ve come across with my clients is not necessarily ‘How do I store them?’ but ‘How do I move them to the newest application?’” said Kaitlyn Ackron, a 17-year-old student in Rio Rancho, N.M., who provides tech support for seniors through an organization called Teeniors.
They worry about accidentally deleting photos from their phones, said Ms. Ackron, who shows them the “Recently Deleted” folder. They’re alarmed when they can’t see old images on a new computer. (The storage device is no longer compatible.) “There have been quite a few people frustrated with that kind of stuff,” said Yannick Hutchinson, a 23-year-old student who also works with Teeniors. New and subtler forms of online storage, working in the backgrounds of our smartphones, cause particular anxiety. “The storage is not on their phone, but out there on this supposed cloud,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “They’re like, ‘Well, where is it?’”
Now, again, with services like iCloud, the tech industry is promising us all the space we need. This time, however, it has barely felt the need to pitch us. Photo glut is a common condition. In a world where images are increasingly created on smartphones only to be shared on smartphones — where a camera roll is at once a photo inbox, outbox, a storage unit and junk drawer, and is, as an archive, an incomprehensible stream of context-free media — the question of where all this media will go in the future has been shoved aside. The more urgent question is: What are we supposed to do with it right now? These days, smartphone makers don’t need to pitch; they tend to just make us aware of what’s already happening automatically. If you use an iPhone, every picture can be uploaded to Apple’s servers, until you run out of free space, at which point you’ll either need to start deleting things or rent some more, from Apple. Google promises unlimited free “storage,” sure: “safe, secure, and always with you.” But some of its other promises, the ones we haven’t heard before, are strikingly of their time: “Never worry about running out of space on your phone again.” It is a gentler approach than “we want all your photos.” And this most modern solution quickly diverts our attention away from the old question — where will my photos end up? — to the newer ones attendant with photography as it exists today. People take pictures to remember things, for the benefit of others, or to record something beautiful or notable, but also according to the constant demands of social media, of keeping friends and family updated in real time, and of simply communicating on the phone. The various images we record, and those compelled from us, are something apart from a photo collection. Apple proactively processes a phone’s images into categories, some of which wouldn’t be out of place on the side of a shoe box, or the cover of a photo album: around dates or places; of particular people, who Apple identifies automatically with facial recognition.
Sometimes Apple reminds you of a birthday party, and presents you with a moving video. Other times, as it did to a friend, it shows you a slide show of photos you took of a stereo to post it on Craigslist. Remember that day?Google’s approach is more assertive. From your raw imagery, it will automatically edit together a sequence of your child’s development. It will do the same for your dog, whose face it can also recognize. You can search your photos for almost anything: cars, sunsets or “screenshots containing text.” Its album and videos and searches double as assurances: You may never organize your photos yourself, but we have some ideas; you may not remember taking them in the first place, but they still exist. Until they don’t. Jason Scott is a founder of Archive Team, a loose network of archivists and programmers that creates tools for extracting data from services that are at risk of disappearing. Flickr has given users options to export everything from the site; the Archive Team is working on alternatives, just in case. “The sad thing about the tech industry is they built everything on subsidized lies: ‘This is going to cost you nothing and this and you’re gong to get amazing things,’” Mr. Scott said. It’s not as easy to imagine a future without Google as it might have been to imagine a future without Zing, or even Yahoo. But it shouldn’t be hard. “It’s 100 percent like Flickr,” Mr. Scott said. “Tech companies are still selling a lot of very neophyte people a lot of problematic lies about things that matter a lot to them.”Besides, even Flickr offered more than storage. It was a social network with a framework for sorting and tagging and categorizing and discussing photography. You can now export that data alongside your photos if you want, but this archive of metadata has few uses and fewer places to go. The prospect of removing your photos and videos from a service like Google Photo, which provides not just space but also the only interface through which your personal imagery makes any sense, is worse than daunting.
Boxes and Books
Ms. Ackron’s advice for seniors remains practical. “You always need to keep an eye on where you’re storing your photos, to make sure things aren’t going out of date,” she tells them, describing the process as “tedious” but necessary. “Technology isn’t slowing down.” They have advice, too. “I just keep all my pictures on my phone,” Ms. Ackron said. “Clients talk about how they kept scrapbooks and photo boxes and photo albums, and about how physically holding the pictures themselves is a different experience.” Now, she said, she prints some favorites of her own. Beneath the roar of digital acceleration, there is still some shuffling of paper. A 2018 analysis by f/22 Consulting, a photo industry firm, noted that a printing business in turmoil has managed to siphon growth from America’s bulging camera rolls. Traditional prints — shoe box fodder — are growing again. But not as fast customized mementos and books, including some generated by tech giants using facial recognition and other artificial intelligence. It’s not a solution, but it may be an escape. My own wedding was just over two years ago, photographed and recorded in a variety of ways. To the extent it existed on social media, it’s in fragments. We have countless photos sitting in folders, and on various drives; some of our guests shared photos with us, others didn’t, and we didn’t bother most of them about it. Google has a cache, which it is tirelessly analyzing for clues and content. For a record of a single weekend, this nebulous digital archive is surprisingly unapproachable. And it has already begun its decay. There does exist a version of events, however, rendered in a coherent way, in the manner of photographs recorded for posterity — a pair of photo books printed for our parents, who requested a way to show photos that didn’t involve their phones. If history is any guide, our best chance at having something to look back at when we’re old won’t come from the next Google, or whatever comes after that. It’s that these books will survive all of it, and find their way back to us.