On my phone there are 28,749 photos. A quick dive into the search function tells me there are 1,330 of dogs (it’s safe to say that at least 1,000 are of one particular fox terrier). There are 383 of Beirut, 477 of New York, 11 of the town where I was born (that’s enough). Although there are some accuracy issues. It says, for example, that I have eight pictures of birds of prey but, when I just clicked on that category, it pulled up a series of images of the Monocle owl mascot, Monochan, who can be spotted at events such as the Monocle Christmas Market yet can only flap its stunted wings because there’s one of our shorter colleagues sweating away inside.
Most of us end up chronicling a lot of our lives on our phones. And, yes, if I drop dead today, then people could discover that in recent years I have taken 1,600 pictures in which a chair appears (39 that, apparently, you can go swivel on). However, I only allowed bananas into my pictorial life on three occasions (and, sorry Mr Search, one of those pictures is actually of a very big – you’ve guessed it – corn on the cob).
Yet here’s the rub. It’s the overabundance of pictures that we now take and store that makes them valueless. A nuisance. You would be insane to trawl through even your dear departed partner’s visual catalogue – it would be dull. Well, unless you discovered, say, a secret second family. Or that they were taking pole-dancing lessons, unbeknownst to you.
And pity the historians. We met with one of the founders of Airbnb who pointed out that they have, in effect, the world’s largest photographic archive of domestic life today. But any academic would be wary of clicking through that library (pictures featuring Ikea beds: 83 million).
But I also have another set of pictures. Total closer to 500. They sit in 10 photo albums. The very first picture is dated 1987 and is taken in the Museum Ludwig in Köln. The next few are of a trip to Hungary by car with a lover who’s still a friend, and a friend who’s still a friend. Hungary is communist; the streets filled with Trabants. We are at the Gellért baths; now staying by Lake Balaton. They are so few in number because I went to a good printer; it was expensive, so I was mean with my order. But that parsimonious selection process became a discipline. Often I would only print a handful of images in a year and I am still just as mean.
There are some ghosts in there but the albums tell a good story that makes me happy when I look at them again. And it’s a story that’s richer than the hurried moments snapped on my phone. A summer trip to New York – I can feel the heat; hear the traffic. Venice in late summer with long evening shadows. You look into your own face and see yourself back then all over again. Come on, you have nothing to worry about.
And, sure, when I shuffle off perhaps someone might just hoick the whole damn lot into a skip but I hope not. A couple of years ago I took ownership of another set of albums of black and white photos, shot by an aunt during the Second World War and its aftermath. She went into Europe as a signaller as the war came to an end. There she is in Belgium – bombed buildings, makeshift encampments. Here she is with her friends swimming on a beach looking beautiful; handsome soldier colleagues stripped for the water. I look at these albums again and again; read the notes from admirers hidden on the reverse of many images. Realise that I wish I knew more. But it’s because they are so scarce that they entice. If she’d left me 20,000 pictures of plates of food, I am not sure that I would be interested.
So now a new mission. Can the world of digital and print collide nicely in my personal life? Can I find a few images on my phone that deserve an appearance on paper? I have a plan; I’ll report back. It’s just for fun. Oh, and to make sure some relative in the future has to pause and look before they press down their foot to open the hungry mouth of the pedal bin.