Emotional Connections & Photographs

On Nov 24, 2008 jason wrote:

Hi Dr. Ellen. I am currently studying creative product design at the University of the West of England. My current project is about the emotional connection people have with photographs (for example in a family photo album) and how the rise of digital photography may have an effect on this. As a design student who is also very keen on photography i found your website very useful. I came across your website in a search to do with psychology and photography, I am writing to you in search of your opinions on this matter. It seems that with the rise of digital photography more and more images are being put in a file on the computer and forgotten about. Recently we have seen companies such as Polaroid going bankrupt and the sales of 35mm film falling. From the research i have done so far I have found that only a small percentage of digital images are printed and displayed. Has the sentimental value of individual photographs declined since the arrival of digital technology?

If you can offer me any opinions or information on this it would be most appreciated. ~Jason

You raise an interesting question, Jason. 

Film vs digital media

The use of film is definitely fading, even among professionals save for the relatively small minority who still shoot with very expensive specialty film cameras. Resellers today are swamped with film cameras. I personally stopped using film in early-1999 and haven’t looked back since.

That said, I will also add that being a professional shooter in this digital age is both pricy and profoundly complex. The simple shift to digital pulled the rug out from under a traditional market that is still reeling from its effects. Kodak saw it coming and has done a pretty good job of re-inventing itself (so far). Other firms have not. Traditional print houses in the beginning of the digital era poo-pooed the threat that digital imaging posed to them, and they continued to print in traditional ways. They simply couldn’t afford to switch to digital systems until finally the market swung so dramatically towards digital that they had to switch if they were going to survive. 

For shooters themselves, the change to digital media has resulted in an overwhelming change in they way they do business. The digital workflow is problematic even with the flagship software applications available to us. The learning curve alone concerning these applications is daunting, not to mention the price. The change to digital has also required an associated switch to vastly upgraded CPU’s and other high-tech hardware, most of which is outdated within a year or two following purchase and installation.

The change to digital has, in effect, engulfed shooters in an avalanche of other associated changes that are hard to even count, they are so many.

A note about the impact of change

We also must talk a bit about change itself, something that is inherently difficult for many people to embrace. Some simply refuse to change. Others put down the threat (posed by some change agent) as merely speculative and nothing to be concerned about. Others can be reliably counted on to confront change proactively as soon as they see the winds changing.

Change and its affects have to do with one’s basic personality profile and how one chooses to approach life in general. High-anxiety individuals approach change differently than low-anxiety individuals. So anything that causes anxiety to spike – like having to spend too much money or being pushed into a high-tech world that one doesn’t want to be pushed into in the first place – is going to be approached by the already anxious person as something to be feared, not something to be embraced.

Film vs computers

The digital world is not just a world without film. Computers and monitors and color management software as well as the Internet are front-and-center in this new digital world, and those who are functionally illiterate in the use of computers risk being left behind. 

And they are legion! Fortunately, social networking sites have burst on the scene to offer simple, easy to understand ways to upload and share photos without a person ever needing to know anything about how all that works. Without these web-based assists, however, there wouldn’t be much sharing going on.

Camera retailers will tell you that quite a large percentage of people buy digital cameras only to return them because (a) they didn’t realize that they needed a computer to manage their digital images; (b) they lack computer expertise for all but maybe sending emails; and/or (c) they have a computer that is too basic to meet the demands of the emerging digital era – yes, even at the consumer level.

My professional computer setup, for example, is a quad-core MacPRO CPU with two 3.0 GHz Intel Xeon 5100 series processors and 10 gigabytes of RAM, two 30-inch networked Apple HD Cinema Displays, 4 one terabyte internal eSATA hard drives, 6 or more terabyte external fire wire drives, a high-end color laser printer, a high-end professional photo printer, a Nikon 8000 LS professional film scanner, a professional photo flatbed scanner and more – not to mention other MACS networked into a shared Internet system right here at my digital desktop.

I also have to maintain all the latest photography-related software programs and stay current on all the lastest and greatest versions of those programs in order to stay competitive.

People lack the expertise for this kind of system and many also simply cannot afford it. Many others have no interest whatsoever in a set-up like this.

Social Networking with Photos

Instead, and to their credit, people are buying these fantastic little digital cameras and are circumventing the need to have a system like mine by using the new web-based services available to them – blogs, Twitter, Squidoo, YouTube, SnapFish, Shutterfly, Facebook, Ovi Share, SmugMug, ePhotoSpace, DotPhoto, WinkFlash, etc. With the mere click of a button their photos appear on the Internet and they are stoked!

Photography has suddenly become one more gratuitous digital toy, something to be played with and put in one’s pocket and/or taken online for thrill of [taking it online.]

Photography has suddenly become fun and available to everyone, not just to a select few. It allows the average person now to document their life at home, at work, in the family, with friends, and even in their wildest pursuits of happiness. It matters not that the photos themselves can be pretty awful; what matters is that people are talking to each other and networking at rates that even an entire photo album cannot match.

Have we lost something in the process?

Probably not, in the sense that, as the old photographs are fading, the online geneology search options are exponentially expanding; thereby giving folks more access than ever to family documents and archives. As their access to these archives improves, their interest level increases as well.

The simple reason digital photos are not being [printed] is that there are many other options today for handling and using the photos that we take.

In the traditional world of photography the choices were few: store the negatives and slides in boxes or get them printed for albums that were also then stored in boxes.

Today, in contrast, we can use photos in far more creative ways on the web, in PowerPoint and Keynote presentations, and in the making of books and calendars and note cards like iPHOTO offers us. We can even stitch still photos together into panoramics and imprint them on ceramic tiles and coffee mugs, even T-shirts. Indeed, the sharing of photos has greatly increased in large part due to the phenomenon of social networking – a scenario where complete strangers can share photos online and critique them and talk about them (and their lives) with others in the most immediate way!

The sentimentalism is still there but it has SHIFTED now from the photo-specific sentimentality of old to something more akin to ‘passionate global networking’ where the photo serves to open doors to a remarkable new world far a field from home and hearth – and at the mere click of a keyboard! The photo is no longer the end, it is now the MEANS TO AN END.

I think that photographs will always be meaningful to us as a snapshot of time, but as technology changes, the form that the photograph takes will also necessarily change.

This isn’t bad, it is just different. Those of us who value prints will still make prints and put them on our walls or in our family albums. Many more will prefer to pixelate their memories and enjoy them today for what they are – a medium for publishing and extolling their daily lives, boring as that may sometimes be.

And tomorrow?

That’s where the real rub comes in. Digital media requires some form of archival process that is easily retrievable. Yet already we are finding that CD and DVD media are not that reliable for a number of reasons. Internal and external hard drives also fail with some regularity. So what is one to do?!

We are on a somewhat slippery slope here because the archival technologies are clearly not keeping up with the shutterbug technologies. Photos are being lost, forgotten and/or discarded along with all their associated memories for lack of adequate archival support platforms. All of which is the industry’s fault for not yet having thought this issue through.

I think we will solve this problem eventually but right now folks are having a ball networking with each other and that is cause enough for celebration. We might even be so bold as to say that a photo is no longer worth a thousand words.

I would, though, add this cautionary note: that personal, one-on-one connections are far superior and more deeply nurturing as compared to online connections. So in a perfect world we will need a better emotional balance than we have achieved so far in a digital world that is still in its infancy technologically.

There is vast opportunity in this negative space that begs to be filled. Perhaps the creative designers of tomorrow will find a way to bridge the gap between enduring sentimentalism and instant gratification in a way that was never imagined before.

I can’t wait. But as a professional photographer I will continue to capture images of the world around me using the new digital technologies because that is what I love to do most in life. I just happen to know better than some how to manage these images and to transform them from camera to some level of global interest.

Plus, it helps me keep track of where I am in the world (smile).

Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph at the Kennedy Space Center Launch

Dr. Ellen at a Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Launch

Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph at the Kennedy Space Center

Leave a comment

Filed under The Art of Photography

Comments are closed.