Photographers: The Guardians of History?

Photographers: The Guardians of History?

Have you ever considered the responsibilities we bear as photographers? Without wishing to get too dramatic, in many ways, we photographers are the guardians of history. Just as our knowledge of history has been shaped by the paintings and drawings of our ancestors, the photographs we capture today may well shape the knowledge of future generations as they endeavor to understand our society today. 

And this visual history is not limited to just our society. It applies just as equally to the physical world around us. Our planet is changing more rapidly than ever before. Acid rain is melting away many of the wonders of the world before our eyes, and deforestation and climate change are causing the mass extinction of entire species of our planet’s wildlife.  Soon, our photographs may prove to be only way for people to visualize the world as we know it today. So, what steps can we take to preserve this photographic legacy for the future? 

Print Your Photographs

African Elephant

With African Elephants facing extinction, could these be the last records of the species?

It sounds so simple, and yet, it is so important; it is worth repeating again and again: we must print our photographs. There is no need for photographers to print every photograph they have ever taken, but every photographer should certainly print some of them. I am sure the irony will not be lost on most that our so-called information age could, in the future, become known as the second dark age, should the digital files we access so easily today become obsolete. 

This is by no means a far stretch of the imagination. After all, how many homes around the world today have a box full of old VHS tape gathering dust, simply because they don’t have a suitable device to play them on. And that technology is only 30 years old. What about 300 years from now? 
Now it is entirely possible that future computer technology will be so backward-compatible, our current file formats, JPGs, MP’s, heck, even animated GIFs, will still be available to view, even hundreds of years from now. But are we prepared to take that risk?  

Ideally, archive paper should be used to ensure these photographs have the best chance of surviving the challenges of time. Again, we are only talking about each photographer printing possibly just a small selection of their best work, so the costs of using good quality, acid-free paper should not be prohibitive. 
Digital photography is a fabulous medium, but it will always just be that, digital. A series of ones and zeros that exist only in a virtual world. A printed photograph is a physical thing. It can be held in the hand. It can be archived. It can be buried for hundreds of years, ready to be discovered by our future selves. And for that reason alone, we should always print our photographs. 

Add Notations

I was two years old when this photograph was taken. I know I was two years old, because it says I was two years old on the back of the photograph. My mother, as many mothers have done before, wrote my name (in case she forgot it?), the year, and my age, and that is how we know. The simple action of printing a photograph alone is a big step towards preserving a visual record of our age for future generations. But adding a simple note can give invaluable additional context to the scene being presented. 

Be Authentic

I say this advisedly, fully aware this may be a contentious point for many, but if photographers truly are the guardians of history, do we not carry a responsibility to present the most authentic version of history we can? We know the power we hold as photographers. We have the ability to shape the opinion of a viewer, depending on how we choose to shoot an image. Photograph a near-empty rock stadium from the front of the (limited) crowd, and you present rock gods, adored by their screaming fans. Shoot the same even from the back of the room, behind the many rows of empty seats, and you present a failed event — two photographs from exactly the same event, but with two completely different narratives, each with a subjective truth that will survive for the lifetime of that photograph. Of course, the exact nature of what constitutes the truth is a debate for another day, but if our photographs are indeed used by future generations to understand our place in history, I wonder if it is incumbent on us to create photographs which we believe to be an accurate representation of the world around us as we see it.

Take on Personal Projects

The Acropolis in Athens

Travel often provides the perfect opportunity to tackle personal projects.

Of course, for any of our photographs, printed or otherwise, to actually be of use in the future, they should depict as many varied subject matters as possible. Unfortunately, opportunities for variety can sometimes be lacking in the world of professional photography, with many of the projects available often very similar in nature to each other. This is where personal projects can prove to be invaluable. As well as allowing a photographer to develop their skills, by taking them outside of their normal environment, these projects also allow them to explore stories that may otherwise have gone untold. Personal projects can take on so many different forms. There is always another aspect of humanity to explore, another view of the planet we inhabit to share. Each of these projects will further enhance the record we leave for the future. 

Final Thoughts

It would, of course, be inaccurate to claim photographers are the sole guardians of history. Writers, painters, sculptures, and all the other artists of the world are equally contributing to the legacy we will offer those who follow. But in order to play our part, we must take photographs that reflect the world as we know it and present them in a way future generations can view. Because, who knows, the work we produce today may prove to be the missing link in the knowledge of our decedents as they strive to understand the world we currently take for granted. 

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1 Comment

Ralph Hightower's picture

Shoot film! Film is a tangible media like prints. Who knows when digital images changes formats or digital storage media becomes obsolete.