Feature: Confessions of a Picture Hoarder

Image source: Creators Project

Written by Yong Kim

Erik Kessels’ installation shows what 24 hours of photos on Flickr looks like in physical form.  The installation got me thinking about the exorbitant amount of pictures we take today.  I’ve never been a big picture taker, that was until I got a digital camera.  I have a little over a hundred physical pictures I’ve collected over my lifetime, but I have thousands in digital form, most of which I accumulated in a span of 3-4 years, starting about 7 years ago.  My physical pictures I view once in a while, with a definite level of fondness, sometimes wishing I had taken more pictures.  I took those pictures to commemorate specific events:  nieces’ birthdays, the first time I went camping with my nieces, my last weekend in San Antonio before I moved back to LA, my college graduation, nieces’ high school graduations, dad’s 60th birthday, the last party I attended in Boston before I moved back to LA, pictures from my cross-country trips, when the family dog was just a puppy, and so on.  Most of my digital pictures, however, are rather insignificant.

Some of those digital pictures are worth keeping, but most of them are just photographic white noise, just digital piles, like the mountains of newspapers in a hoarder’s pen:  pictures from a random night out that I could barely label with the year in which it was taken let alone what the significance of them was; photos of me hanging out with people whose names I could scarcely remember; photos of an event I remember attending but have no significance to me; countless pictures of landscapes that I thought were so beautiful–from sunsets and beaches to the views from skyscrapers; and so on. They all blend together to make up a giant picture collage that amounts to nothing, about as distinct and meaningful as a muzak rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.”

So why do I hold on to those digital pictures?  Because it doesn’t do any harm to keep them.  Sure they’re digital baggage but it’s not like they’re in physical form that take up any space in my closet or anything, nothing I have to lug around when I move.  And which ones should I delete?  It would probably take an entire day to sift through the virtual piles of pictures to find the few that are worth keeping, the ones I would show to future generations, pointing out specific friends or sharing fond memories of special times or events in my life.  But sharing all these pictures would go mostly something like this:  “There’s me from 30 years ago, out at a club, with…um… I don’t remember her name…and he was a… a friend…I guess… I don’t remember his name, either…that was a group I hung out with briefly back then…um… no, none of them are in my life today; I wasn’t particularly close friends with any of them… that’s a picture of a beach… no, I don’t remember which beach… um, that’s a sunset… pretty, right?  No, I don’t remember when I took that.”  Still, I keep them.  Somehow it just doesn’t seem right to delete them.  I just know that the moment I press the delete button I am sure to think of a unique and purposeful application for them (universal law, thy name is Murphy).  Digital photography has made me a hoarder.

Before digital photography became ubiquitous, snapping pictures everywhere you went was for tourists, the idea of someone doing so conjuring up jokes and images of the stereotypical Japanese tourist visiting America and snapping pictures at every second, trying to capture every second and essence of their experience.  Between digital cameras alleviating the cost of developing pictures and social media providing forums to display them to everyone we know, and beyond, now it’s the norm to document the daily ins-and-outs of our lives, because everybody needs to see a thousand pictures of us and our friends at some bar for a random outing or the pretty sushi we had for lunch (as pretty as a rainbow roll may be). We’ve become our own paparazzi, our own stalkers. We are no longer content to experience an event, to just have memories.  We want everyone else to experience every second of our daily lives. And as a result, we’ve become a virtual presence at the events we attend. Because we spend all our time incessantly documenting our lives, we miss out on the full experience, kind of like a wedding photographer who is physically at the wedding like everybody else but isn’t really experiencing it like the other attendees. That photographer may be at the wedding, but she’s not truly in attendance, is she? Our presence may not be as clinical or detached as the wedding photographer’s, but spending our time snapping pictures excessively (in addition to constantly texting and being online on our smartphones) does detract from the moment.  It’s like watching a movie with someone who constantly talks to you throughout the whole thing.

So am I saying we shouldn’t take pictures at all?  Certainly not.  We should definitely take advantage of the conveniences of digital photography, the ease and low cost with which we could capture our memories and share them.  I appreciate it when friends share photos of a significant moment or event; when those who live in faraway parts of the world post or send me pictures of their children whose early lives I get to watch even though I’m so far away; etc.  But perhaps we don’t have to be excessive about sharing every single moment of our lives, to come home with hundreds of pictures every time we set foot out the door, just because we can.

I recently read a blog entry–titled Sweet Solitude: Creating Intimacy with Writing & Ourselves–that recommended declaring social bankruptcy, which means saying “no” to most social events and only attending those that truly mean something to me; and that this social asceticism will aid in increasing my happiness.  I smiled a little when I read this because I had already declared social bankruptcy years ago and knew this to be true.  The same is true in regard to declaring photographic bankruptcy, at least for me.  These days most of my friends don’t take many pictures, and nor do I.  We certainly do take pictures when we’re out celebrating someone’s birthday, while attending a farewell party, when a friend is visiting from out of town, or for an event worth capturing (though even then pictures are taken at key moments, not incessantly as if we were preparing a report of the evening for the CIA); but when we go out just for dinner or drinks or having a gathering to watch a sporting event, there isn’t a single picture taken.  I can’t speak for my friends, but I certainly enjoy social events more when I’m not trying to document the minutiae of my social life.  As a result, the digital pictures I gather these days (which are kept in a separate folder from the thousands of white-noise pictures) have as much significance as the physical ones.