Give Memories a Chance – By Ash Scott-Lockyer

For a photographer there is probably very little worse than permanently losing a body of your work. Your images are your expression of your place in the world, and to have thousands of these torn away from you is to lose a part of your identity.

Sadly, I know this only too well as I lost perhaps ten years of my photographic life, and indeed photos of my life, in a hard drive failure about two and a half years ago. I had photos of my children, I had commercial jobs, I had photos of pets that had sadly passed away – all gone.

Of course, it was my own fault, I had one, large external hard drive and no other form of backup. But in my defence, I had a sort of blind faith in the technology born of being one of the earliest professionals to embrace the digital revolution, and of course nothing was going to happen to my images – don’t be daft. I also hadn’t realised the huge sums that companies who specialise in recovering data charge for their services. It runs into thousands of pounds, really! They will happily take in your hard drive giving you a vague quote in the hundreds of pounds, then when they have ‘assessed’ your drive their tone changes. Yes, they have found files and they are prepared to recover them, but now the price is massively hiked. Agreed they have ‘clean rooms’ and highly trained personnel to pay, but I also found them perfectly willing to hold your information ransom, and indeed the company who ended up with my drive wouldn’t even send it back to me for an independent assessment when requested.

But it was still, basically my fault for not backing up – and then backing up some more. But hey, wasn’t digital supposed to make everything simpler?

So, I lost everything. Well not quite everything, I still had the many thousands of film negatives that I’d taken both in my personal and professional life prior to hearing the siren call of digital. They didn’t need backups; they were just there waiting.

This cathartic event got me thinking about the body of work a photographer produces in their life, and about what legacy about our life and times we leave for future generations.

Did you like looking through that shoe box of family snapshots as a kid? Trying perhaps to work out who some of those long-gone people were?  Well now those photographs are almost always on our phones, will future generations be able to find your smartphone in a shoe box, figure out your password, and wonder at the images of your life? I doubt it.

When you are dead and gone who will pay the cloud storage fees for you online images? Who will curate the files on your hard drive and make sure they are in a format that can still be read in five years, ten years, a hundred years. Will there still be computer hardware that will mate-up to that hard drive? I mean, try finding a computer to attach a firewire hard drive to these days!

After her death in a nursing home, and the subsequent discovery of hundreds of thousands of black and white and colour photographs locked away in an abandoned storage unit, Vivian Maier’s huge talent is being recognised after a lifetime of obscurity. The problem is with the digital legacy there are unlikely to be any more treasure troves like Vivian’s to discover. All your images will be gone when you are, and to future generations you may as well not have existed. And your wedding and your children’s first steps – they’ll all be gone.

‘Ah people don’t destroy art in that way you may say’ … well as a kid I remember watching the Dr Who serial ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ – that was wiped by BBC in the 1970s (to re-use video tape) and lives on only in still photos and the memories of those like me old enough to have watched. We can still watch Buster Keaton or Gone with The Wind or most feature films and for that matter newsreels from the past because they were shot on film

So nowadays I never shoot anything digitally that I can’t afford to lose – period.

You may think this is a bit paranoid, but the delete button is easy, and once the ephemeral digital information is chaffed, that’s it. Cloud storage is commercialised and in the hands of large entities, so if there is a technical failure there, or even a lack of future proofing, they can hold up their hands and say sorry … but it won’t bring back our memories.

For people who never painted a picture or composed a sonnet, their photographs are ‘personal folk art’ for their times, and because of their efforts we see the photographic age more clearly than any that predated the 1840s and the birth of the camera. We see the horrors of the American Civil war; we see kid playing on London bombsites in the 1940s. But will any of us be faces in faded prints by 2040?

Buy film, shoot film, and fill that shoebox: give your memories a shot at immortality.


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16 thoughts on “Give Memories a Chance – By Ash Scott-Lockyer”

  1. I sympathise, but then I’ve always been fairly fastidious about backups. It has saved me several times, mostly with work rather than photography, but still. Cloud and solid-state drives mostly.

    I fully agree with the fact that we have to archive our photos in some way. Film is clearly good for that, but one house fire and it’s all gone. Your descendants also need to be able to view the negatives some way, and how do you share them out if you have more than one child? Also, will they ever bother to search through tens of thousands of negatives for that one shot they like?

    I think you need several strategies, including curating photos keeping the good ones (scans or digital) in some form of curated library you can copy with ease. Oh, and prints.

    After Hamish mentioned doing a photo book every year of his kids I’ve started doing the same for mine, it’s a great way to keep the best. I do a calendar every year too.

    1. I agree, house fires are a problem, as well as (here in US) tornados, floods, and hurricanes. It is easy to have multiple copies of digital files, but who has a set of duplicate negatives? For every negative I have that I would regret losing, there are multiple digital scans in three locations. Any negatives that are extremely important will go to secured physical storage.,

  2. I completely agree prints and books. I do both, it’s the only way for my Children and Grandchildren to recall memories of their lives when they get aged like myself. If you only shoot digital, then it is the only way. I’m a film user so the negatives are there as well.

  3. Ash Scott-Lockyer

    Thanks for your comment, Malcolm. The statistical odds of a house fire are one in three thousand approximately – the chances of a hard drive failing in a given month are one in thirty-six. I think I’ll take my chances with negatives 🙂
    Seriously I agree about viewing even for negatives – but it’s easier to scan a physical negative than to find a lead for a firewire drive – install an operating system that may have become obsolete.
    Books are a fabulous idea – and I’ve produced several of them of late – and I’d encourage others to as well!

    1. Normally I wouldn’t worry about house fires, and I have a fire safe for some stuff, like backup hard drives. But this year in the UK we had some wildfires due to the heat and some people’s houses simply went up in smoke, they lost everything. I think this (and flooding) are happening more and more around the world, so some sort of off-site backup is also advisable. Great article though, and I fully agree that you can’t just leave your photographic legacy to chance.

  4. I recently had the same experience – my wedding work in Lightroom on the Windows desktop was on a double RAID drive so I knew that would give me a safety net. My personal photos were on a LaCie drive that was Mac only, and it failed. Luckily I was able to get it retrieved (at a significant cost) so I now have to work out how best to future proof my work. I still have loads of negatives and slides from the pre-digital era and they need cataloguing and possibly scanning …..
    And as for the photos on my phone and on the Cloud …. ????
    Photography is a wonderful career/hobby, but sorting and archiving for future generations is really important and needs serious consideration

    1. Ash Scott-Lockyer

      My intention was to get folks to think seriously about archiving. It’s easy to think that one’s own images are not important in a historical sense – but the importance often does not become apparent till many years later.

  5. I seem to remember that movies and video programmes could be originated and archived on tape. Not only did tapes get erased, but the oxide had a habit of falling of the substrate rendering the material captured thereon useless. I have a few images carefully saved on floppy disks, but today, no floppy drive no cable to connect such a thing to my current computer and no program to communicate with a floppy drive. Such progress! The dreadful irony is that I have digitally archived many of my negatives. How many hard drives or SSD units should I use for backups`/ Oh and what about the images on CDs? (anyone seen a cd rive recently?

    1. Ash Scott-Lockyer

      The ironic thing is that I have loads of pictures shot on my old Zenith E when I was fourteen or shot with an Olympus OM1 in Paris when I was twenty, but none from my Nikon D100 or D200.
      As to solutions, I think some form of hybrid analogue and digital storage solution is the way forward – but the issue has been the speed of change in digital media leading to ‘built in obsolescence’ and evolutionary blind alleys. If your home movies are on a pile of 8mm video tapes and you don’t have the camera anymore things will be difficult.
      Cloud storage is so often dependent keeping up a subscription, and that of course will be dependent on both the changing fortunes of one’s life, and the changing fortunes of one’s service provider!

  6. Just to throw in a suggestion. I work for myself and my laptop is my business. Recently I was on a job and my laptop simply died. Fortunately I had a backup but it was a pain rebuilding the laptop. So I bought a 1TB Samsung EVO SSD and an Orico SSD caddy from Amazon. Total cost, just over £100. Samsung have migration software that allows you to copy the complete hard drive to this external SSD. So I have a 1TB Samsung SSD inside my laptop and every couple of months I migrate the whole system to this external drive, which I put in a small fire safe. That way, if my laptop tanks I simply open it up, swap drives, let it do a cloud backup and Bob’s your uncle.

    Don’t think you will avoid all data disasters, pretty much everyone has something go wrong at some point. Have some sort of backup plan and keep up to date with new technology. Having all your old photos on Jaz drives is not going to work!

  7. I bought a Synology dsicstore with 4 x 3Tb Seagate ironwolf NAS drives giving a total of 6 Tb storage in a RAid 5 configuration as a backup for my photos. I had about 400,000 images stored on the system when, after an automatic system update, all 4 drives failed. Could never prove anything and Synology were evasive. I lost the lot. Last time I purchase their product. I currently have an AsusStore Raid array, and a WD NAS plus several SSDs using the Grandfather, father, son principle on which my photos are stored. I also have a subscription to Flickr with unlimited storage. Can’t ever have enough backups!
    I have a dedicated laptop which has photos that I consider important to me on and that will be passed on to my heirs along with all the drives

  8. Like so many things, the devil is in the details. I have commented on this subject before but it needs repeating. An archive can be very difficult to curate but unless you put your photos into some useable form for those who don’t remember when a photo was taken, well the future isn’t very bright. I was one of those individuals who didn’t consider my work as anything of consequence then thirty years passed and one day I realized I had an interesting body of work. The passage of time definitely has an impact on our perception of value. I have been diligently organizing my photo archive since 2010 and I’m still not there, close, but still refining. I still shoot film.

    The upside from this effort has been that I can now readily locate images going back to the 1960’s. I am in the process of producing two exhibits of separate bodies of work and I can be assured that my family will not inherit a jumbled mess of negs and transparencies. I purchased a pro Epson printer and am making prints as well. It won’t just happen. It takes a dedicated effort.

    I’m a professional retoucher and have been in the business since 1976. One of my specialties is photo restoration. I can tell you from first hand experience that a hard copy of your precious life moments is irreplaceable. I have the privilege of helping families re-establish a connection with their photographic legacy ( I just did a digital restoration of a daguerreotype). I tell people the sad truth that kids from current digital generations will have amazing photographs of their great great great grandparents but not a single print from their own childhood. My restoration client has a slogan for their business “Someday it will be pleasant to remember”.

    I have not yet produced any digital books but I have several that are starting to materialize as I get my archive under control. Feeling like it is an actual possibility gives me the drive to press forward. Thanks for writing this story. Archive organization is not the most glamorous thing to do but the joy it will bring to future generations can’t be underestimated.

  9. Ash Scott-Lockyer

    We need to shout loud that we as photographers are custodians of huge amounts of both family and folk history, and we need to get with the program and organise 🙂

  10. A very timely article as coincidentally I’m just putting the finishing touches to one based on some of the very few negatives that were salvageable when my negative files were lost to a flood some years ago. As we live on a hill this was the last thing I ever expected.
    Look after those shoeboxes. The loss of them would be, as it was for me, absolutely heartbreaking.

  11. I’m now 71. Starting every February, I begin to edit the previous year’s work. I go into my darkroom, and print the edited negs. I make around 60 prints. That takes around a month, printing every other day, weekends off. Each session is about 2.5 hours. I lay the prints out on our 10 ft. farm table and do an initial edit. Then my wife does her edit. If our daughter is home visiting, she does her edit. I try to get the number down to 40. I bind the survivors into a hand made, hard-bound book/portfolio. I just finished the 2021 book. I’ll destroy the 2021 negs in 2023 by burning them. Why burden my family with piles of negatives? The books are a compact, uniform size, smaller than 3 ring binder. No need to keep a film archive, I’m not Magnum. It’s my way and it works for me.

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