Digital Pack Rat

I wish clearing up my digital photos was as easy as clearing out the house for moving. There are a lot of things I am unsentimental about. I get rid of old clothes without a second glance. Marie Kondo would be proud. I look at something that’s been stored away for ages and dump it. If I haven’t needed it for the last six years, I’m not going to need it now. Digital photos are different. There are 23,465 digital photos in my photo library as I write this. I don’t think I’ve deleted one.

My logic is always the same: it costs nothing to keep the photo. It doesn’t occupy physical space the way 23,465 Polaroids would. So why get rid of them? They provide an unedited collage of my life for the last twenty years or so.

The problem is that I am not organized about my photos the way I am in other parts of my life. I’ve made reluctant attempts at organization now and then, but my heart was never in it. I’ve had all kinds of great ideas for photo taxonomies that would allow me to put my finger on a photo within seconds. These ideas never pan out. I just don’t have the interest. And yet the photos accrue.

Look at all of these screenshots I’ve captured! I don’t even get rid of these. I think, for some reason, that I’ll need a particular screenshot at some point in the future. This is preposterous, but the screenshots are still part of my photo library.

I must have dozens of pictures of a barn in Maine. The barn doesn’t change much. But I have my phone, so I take the picture, even though I know I already have plenty.

That barn in Maine
That barn in Maine.

Digital photography has created a crisis and turned me into a digital packrat. I find myself wishing that we still had to put film in a camera, or that there was some equivalent cost to a digital photo. I think I’d be more careful about what pictures I decided to snap, and what I chose to keep.

I’ve been taking fewer photos these last two months. Many of the photos I had taken previously were taken spontaneously with the thought, “This would make a good post on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram.” But when I gave up social media and found myself pulling out my phone to snap a photo of the two deer munching away at shrubs alongside the bike path, I made a decision. I slipped my phone back into my pocket and decided to stand there and watch the deer. No photos necessary.

Deer
The deer that I didn’t photograph When I started thinking about this post, I snapped a photo the next time I saw her. Actually, I snapped three.

The 23,465 photos in my library will only continue to grow and continue to be disorganized. Whenever I get the idea to purge and organize the photos, I break out in a cold sweat. The number alone—23,465 (and counting)—terrifies me. If I managed to look at, and make a decision on, 100 photos a day, it would take me nearly 8 months before I finished. And by then, who knows how many more photos will have appeared.

Thinking about how difficult it is to purge all of those photos make it so much easier to get rid of the physical stuff around the house. The more I can get rid of the, the less I have to move to the new house.

Which reminds me: I need to get over there next week and take pictures of all of the rooms so that I know where everything is going to go.

4 thoughts on “Digital Pack Rat

  1. I have around 100k images in my Flickr library (this is probably my most complete, and organised library outside my various backups). I sometimes wonder if accumulating such a huge library will be problematic for my family when I eventually shuffle off into the Great Darkroom in the Sky.

    On balance, though, I’d much rather preserve these memories, than start stripping them away because they seem too voluminous. I’m pretty determined to document our lives, and our memories for future generations. I wrote a bit about this in this post, so I won’t elaborate much here.

    When I look at what I have from my childhood, and from previous generations, I see moments now and then, certainly not complete pictures of what those times were like. I rely on photos to remember my past because my memory can be pretty spotty.

    When it comes to my growing library of photos, I’m working on the assumption that image recognition technology will only improve over time, and our kids will be able to use it to find the stuff that matters to them. If I look at how good Google Photos is now when it comes to recognising subject matter in photos, and even filtering photos, I’m less and less concerned about the size of my library.

    I think you make a great point about being mindful of the moment we’re in, and not immediately distracting ourselves from it by taking a photograph of the scene. We can’t spend all our lives looking through a viewfinder.

  2. Paul, two things prevent me from changing my behavior much at this point: (1) the time it would take to try to got through all of the photos; and (2) the image recognition that you mentioned. Apple Photo is not as good as Google Photo is in this regard yet, but it is getting there.

  3. I think image recognition will make the need to manually organise these collections largely redundant. I find that Google Photos even surfaces stuff I really like, and have long-since forgotten about.

  4. Hi Jamie

    Just as an experiment it might be worth running something like Gemini (https://macpaw.com/gemini) over your photo library. It spots not only exact duplicates but similar shots. Like that barn. 😉

    (MacPaw also do some other good “decluttering” apps, if you get the bug.)

    Paul

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