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3:54pm on Friday, 26th July, 2013:

Old Photos


I went through three biscuit tins of my mother's old photos today and yesterday, scanning them to attach to genealogy records. I tried to be quite selective, but still scanned over 200 of them (plus another 40 or so of people I can't identify).

Old photos of people always make me feel sad. It's worse when I know who they are but I only ever remember then as old folk: I see them in their youth, and I get an overwhelming feeling of loss. I wish I'd known them then. I see goodness and hope and intelligence, but I know what insurmountable obstacles they face; I see potential, but I know what adversity lies ahead.

The fashions and hairstyles may be a hundred years old, but I can imagine seeing the faces today. Some of them are strikingly good looking; others look like Herman Munster or that octopus woman out of The Little Mermaid. They just look so alive, yet almost all of them are dead. The only photos I scanned of people I know are alive are of me, my mum, my dad, and some of my mum's cousins' children.

There's writing on the back of many of the photos. Some of what's there is almost unbearably poignant. Photos sent by my mother's uncles in the first world war to their own mother, so she'd have something to remember them by if they didn't come back. A picture of a toddler with "my treasure" as the description. "Little Jackie age 5. Died 1936", stuff like that. People pour their emotions into some of these old photos.

Today, photos are so easy to take that they don't have the same impact. Facial recognition software tells you who's whom, if someone hasn't tagged it. I scanned about 20 pictures of my mother as a young woman, but my younger daughter probably takes more than 20 photos a week.

The more photos there are, the less special each is, so the less weight is attached to any single one. Today's photos are therefore in general not as impactful as the ones of old, so are likely to be less upsetting when someone has to look through hundreds of them a century from now.

That's probably a good thing.

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).