A couple of years ago I found a family album in a drawer of my grandparents’ house. In it were photographs of my mother, my uncle, my grandparents and generations of people I had never met or heard of, dating back to the late 19th Century. Flicking through the CCI17022015_0028pages I began to wonder what our lives would look like to future generations: how would they be viewing their family history, and would the content of what’s captured change? With the invention of digital photography and social networking sites the idea of a traditional family album has
become almost obsolete and in the future people will have the ability to comb through years’ worth of detail about their family’s lives through sites like Facebook.

Ever since its invention in the early 19th Century, photography has been central to our idea of family and our memories. Having ‘Cartes de visite’ (small photographs made to be collected, traded and displayed amongst middle and upper class social groups) made of yourself and family members was a common practice in the 1850s. Now, over one hundred and fifty years later, people still share photographs of children at school, of their wedding, holiday snaps and images of family members.

As the development of the science behind cameras and photography advanced, manufacturers began producing cameras for the very purpose of people being able to capture their own lives CCI17022015_0041to share with their loved ones and for the preservation of memories. When looking through my family album I was aware that these were not professionally shot meaning that by the early 20th Century photography had developed to a point where not only were the images available to the masses, but so was the equipment.

Cameras like Kodak’s Box Brownie models, created from 1900 onwards were popular choices for non-professional people. Continuing throughout the 20th Century amateur film cameras became more and more popular and the invention of Polaroid Cameras and instant film in the late 1940s created a demand for the ‘instant’ picture and became popular for both amateurs and professionals alike. For the first time they were able to see the image in front of them almost instantly and for this reason alone Polaroids became popular amongst families to capture and view moments instantly.

Now the modern day equivalents would be applications like Instagram and Snapchat, which have been designed to not only capture but also share a moment at the touch of a button. Images that may have been ignored before digital photography are now freely and regularly captured as cost is no longer a contributing factor and we have the ability to view and retake images immediately after they’ve been shot. This means that a lot of events and experiences that wouldn’t have been captured even fifteen years ago within a family’s daily life now are.CCI17022015_0004_family

Photographic albums are now replicated digitally on social networking sites and interfaces like Facebook’s Timeline, which has made it easier to preserve these memories along with their associated dates and connections with people, creating a very integrated experience of viewing family photographs. Without having to remember information and note it down, Facebook is now capable of automatically tagging people, locations and dates meaning you’ll never forget who was at the family gathering of 2009, and you’ll know exactly what the feedback was from each member of the family via the comment section.

One aspect that I believe that hasn’t changed is the reason for our obsessive documentation of our lives. Creating a sense of who we are and where we come from is important to us, as it often helps us define our identity, which is why we create a selective reality of the events of our lives and of those who we choose to declare as our family and friends. Whether it is conscious or not, people strive to make connections with other humans and create a positive persona for themselves, as the impressions we make on other people are naturally seen as holding importance.

Photographic albums often become the only biographical material people leave behind after they die, which makes photographs a vital part of preserving information, but their CCI17022015_0032importance extends beyond just recording history and allows people to interpret family structures, relationships and even themselves as individuals. This interpretation of meaning behind the photographs assumes that they are a means of communication and fundamentally they are a way of sharing a moment that whoever is behind the camera has chosen to capture in a particular way. By only capturing the positive moments of family lives and events and choosing to omit the negative, families create a fictional narrative, which in turn mirrors the practice of photography itself. This form of selective amnesia can be developed through the choice of whoever shot the images, or whoever edits the photographs down. Images of dominant family members looking ‘bad’ will often get omitted and the general consensus of the family as a whole is often to have everyone looking happy and well. Funerals, divorce and work are conveniently removed, despite often being vital turning points or personality-shapers during the course of a person’s life or their family history, preventing a cohesive historical narrative.

Facebook offers an extension of this desire to present a fabricated version of our own life and history to others. People will pick and choose the best parts of their lives (the holidays, the mentions of a new house, a new job, a child etc.) to publicise, and leave out the mundane or bad parts. Every time you update your status, comment on an image or like a post, you’re leaving a trail of internet history behind you, and as long as the internet we know and love doesn’t become an archaic and inaccessible resource in the future, this history will potentially be accessible by our descendants.

Far more than our generation has ever had access to will be available to find and browse easily. Future generations will be able to see what their grandparents were doing back in 2012, and what their uncle said about their aunty when they got together in 2010.

Do you think it’s best for our public internet history to remain accessible even after we are deceased, or is it leaving too much personal information behind? Share your thoughts with us below.

Image Credit: Self-scanned images