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Dossier 12/07/2013

Family photos: from film to digital

Our picture-taking habits have changed since the arrival of digital cameras: while we take five times more photographs than we did with film cameras, we only get 15 % of them developed on paper, changing the way we share and store them.

To understand the changes caused by digital technology we need to go back to the first changes to family photos. While they had previously consisted mainly of group photos and portraits that were meant to show off the family (family gatherings, weddings, etc), young families in the 1960s gradually altered this state of affairs. Photos became increasingly natural, as if the photographers were trying to capture the present moment, a fleeting instant that gives rise to an emotion. Even if the purpose of the family photo was still to record the past or the passage of time, the idea was no longer to show ‘who was there’, but rather to capture ‘what was happening’. This trend was greatly accelerated by the arrival of digital technology. Cameras have become easier to use and are integrated into mobile phones, making it increasingly simple to take photos at any time. Once a ritual involving complex settings, taking a photo is now instantaneous. This new-found freedom has changed our relationship with family photos. They have become mere records, divorced from the process of memory, and must be reinvented to have meaning.

Showing, sharing, sending

This process of democratisation has also changed the way we share photos. While they used to be intended above all for future generations, pictures are now shared in a more horizontal way. Ease of replication makes it possible to have personalised albums that focus on a particular aspect of our lives. For a grandmother, we might select the best photos of her grandchildren, while for a brother we might show progress on building the house. Family photos seem to have become a series of moments that we share before forgetting them in a corner of the computer’s memory. With increased storage capacity on hard discs, photos tend to accumulate, following a certain pattern. When couples form, each of them brings along a collection of photos that often remains filed separately in the same file (‘my pictures’ in Windows, for example); when the first child comes along, a shared file is created that mainly focuses on photos of baby; then, the volume of pictures leads to the first filing exercise: the photos are categorised by event (holidays, birthdays, family meals…), but these efforts are often quickly abandoned in favour of simple chronological order. However, not all the pictures are necessarily centralised. Many remain on the memory cards of mobile phones, to be shown off at any time, and others are shared by e-mail, looked at and then forgotten.

Who does the filing?

Which member of the couple actually does the filing? Filing and displaying pictures was historically the woman’s job (although she did not take the pictures), but digital technology has changed this as well. While it is still too early to say that the roles have been switched, men are now more likely to file photo albums using the computer, which is their favourite medium. If neither parent has the necessary skills, the job falls to the younger generation. Transmission between the generations is then reversed.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the stock of pictures is forever badly filed and poorly organised, because that is also often the case with analog photos. Far from the fixed chronological order imposed by an album, files and directories of photos evolve, disappear or are replicated depending on each person’s needs. Just like the life story that they tell, photos constitute a ‘landscape’ that varies according to who we are talking to and the circumstances, thereby imitating the plasticity of history and life itself…


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