Taking photos is a huge part of any travel experience. I have personally been guilty of trying to sit family members down to a veritable shitload of photos, guilting them into viewing each, complete with explanation. I get the impulse.
However, we have added a complicating component to our previous photo-taking practices with the presence of the cloud. The urge to ensure that we never lose a photo led many of the young people on my trip to back up all of their photos to those anonymous servers in the sky immediately, a practice that served some well when they had problems with their phones.
As someone who is older, a bit more tech-savvy, and a *lot* more paranoid, though, I try to be very judicious with what I send to the cloud. I barely burned through a gig of data in my long stay ai Roma, and almost none of that came in the form of photos. The young ‘uns, on the other hand, burned through their allotted data in about a day and a half with their desire to make sure that every photo was instantly available on FB and/or Instagram.
That need for immediate validation reminded me of Teju Cole’s arguments about the “memorial impulse” that this sort of photography implies. In a 2015 essay in the New York Times, he argues that
But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: We need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.
The simultaneous desire to open and close experience strikes me as a particularly useful way to think about what taking a photograph means in our own lives. There’s an element of being willful participants in our own surveillance to all of this phone camera usage, and the spaces that we don’t allow to fill in by our own memories seems to me to be part of the loss that Cole is speaking of. Those spaces (and that loss) often manifests itself in nostalgia, and nostalgia has a different edge in a world where memory is subject to corporate control.
As much as I want to frame this conversation around that old 80s theme of selling out, as Cole and many others make clear the equation is not nearly that simple. It’s more of an algorithm, which might simply be an explanation triggered by my inability to think outside of that data processing framework. Still, the calculations that I often go through in my head as I try to determine (or perhaps over-determine) which actions are moral and just often leave me dizzy. I’m just hoping that I can resist the impulse to simply what the fuck and go with the easiest option.