A Deep Dive Into Understanding the Lifespan of Your Images

A Deep Dive Into Understanding the Lifespan of Your Images

As I went through the process of archiving and backing up my collection of images, I couldn't help but think: do digital images last forever? Or do they only last as long as the lifespan of a photographer? With these questions in mind, let's explore my thoughts on digital photography and its future.

Value Versus Lifespan

There may not be a definitive answer to how long an image lasts, but I often find that an image's lifespan strongly correlates with its value. In short, we tend to appreciate things we value for longer periods. The rise of digital photography and recent rapid technological advancements have definitely lowered the entry barrier to photography, making it widely accessible. As a result, we tend to create many more photographs daily, which we may not remember or care for sufficiently. The influx of consumable images makes it challenging for any single photo to stand out before being replaced by newer images, unlike in the past when each image was taken with greater care and appreciation.

The Deeper Issue and Vulnerability With Digitalization and Technology Advancement

Personally, I see a deeper aspect of this topic that is seldom discussed among photographers, and it's not about having a backup system. As digital data becomes more important, backing up is essential to reduce data loss risks due to hardware failures. However, this might be just a part of a larger issue. While we enjoy the convenience brought by technological advancement, we must also acknowledge the risk of our image formats becoming obsolete, replaced by more efficient forms, making our current collections inaccessible in the future. For instance, CD backups have become obsolete with the standardization of hard disk backups.

That said, if your images are stored in a digital medium that requires specialized devices to read and decode, they may never be seen again once the original creator, you, lose interest in them. It's a significant effort for anyone to maintain that level of self-interest, unlike finding a stack of images in a box that transcends time, like the creations of Vivian Maier. Even if someone shows great interest, data accessibility remains a question. Who should have access to our drives, which likely contain more than just images? Hence, it might be accurate to say that with digitalization, images might only live as long as their creator's lifespan.

Our Approach Towards Online Presence

Contrarily, some might argue that images uploaded online tend to stay there indefinitely. While this may be true, it largely depends on our approach to creating an online presence that stands out, either through exclusivity or being prolific. If you're exclusive, your work may be remembered, reproduced, and constantly shared, keeping it alive. If you're prolific, you'll have to hope some of your work survives and continues to circulate online to attract attention. If neither, your images may only live as long as you actively post about them.

While digital is an excellent format for sharing and storing photographs, it heavily relies on devices and infrastructure. No matter how good the images are, if these infrastructures cease to exist, your work will disappear. Conversely, prints have a higher chance of survival and don't rely on any device, although they degrade over time.

Education and Platform

Lastly, I believe educating future generations is key to prolonging your work's lifespan. While acknowledging that nothing lasts forever, imparting knowledge, especially in photography, will keep the wheel turning. By teaching our children the importance of art and creativity in relation to photographs, the value of photographs will continue to thrive and be passed down through generations. As Vivian Maier said:

Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on. 

Zhen Siang Yang's picture

Yang Zhen Siang is a commercial photographer specialising in architecture, food and product photography. He help businesses to present themselves through the art of photography, crafting visually appealing and outstanding images that sells.

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I am glad that you posted that. Personally, I am getting on in years, and I think about leaving a legacy of my photographs. Not that I am some great photographer, but my work means a lot to me. In the past, many great photographers created a body of prints and then destroyed the negatives. Edward Weston authorized his sons to keep making prints after he passed. Today, younger people don’t care a lot for family heirlooms like old photographs and wedding albums. I am thinking about making archival prints of my best images and then creating .tff files of those plus a few others. Then, maybe I will delete the rest and authorize my executor to take down my social media accounts and remove any prints. I am still thinking it through.

So called younger people care about what they care about. If they're interested then they will take heart. I've meat numerous people younger than myself and they adore physical photos and albums

You are right Rob. As long as there’s value, people will still appreciate it. And to be honest the interpretation of value isn’t really up to us. We can only do our best to facilitate that and when that day comes, it’s easier for them

Glad that you enjoy the read Ed. Personally I label everything that I create and leave the rest to them. If somehow my kids picks interest into digging up those files they will find them. And if they somehow aren’t appreciative of my work then there isn’t must we can do about it. We’re the first generation that will leave a ton of digital information behind when we pass so I’m still observing what we can do. As much convenience digital brought to us it’s at the same time also easy to be destroyed. Such is life and life goes on

Thanks for discussing that interesting aspect of our creative life. Two comments:
- As digital artists, and compared to others in the plastic arts, we are very fortunate to have both backup and archiving options.
- There are important practical differences between backups and archiving. Regardless and on top of backup redundancy, I personally recommend using M-discs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-DISC) for real archiving. Very skilled photographers will typically not succeed in populating even a small fraction of one such disc with their highest-res keepers...

Thanks for taking the time to read. Yes I do agree with you that our medium of art is lucky to have the backup options. However like a double edge sword, it’s also to some extend taken for granted. No amount of backup will be valuable or useful if no one from our next generation appreciates it simply because of the sheer amount of images that we’re producing today oversaturating what our generation or even next generation can consume

I guess that I am not as gloomy about that, and for the very reason I practice this art - the only primary motivation for doing it is my unstoppable and largely irrational inner drive. The rest- exhibitions, recognition and recorded memories etc. are very nice but mere secondary.

yup.. after all our own happiness and satisfaction is what matters the most. We really cannot control that much