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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 14:16 GMT
Digital photos 'endanger the past'
Elian raid on his home AP
This image of Cuban boy Elian made headlines across the world
Experienced photographer Jayne West wrote her degree dissertation on the historical impact of digital capture. She argues that the use of digital photography in news reporting means we could lose a valuable pictorial record of history.

News photography sits within the documentary genre. A belief system has built up around it, which says it is telling the truth, that the photograph records an absolute replica of what is there.

But we have always been aware that by framing, selection, focus, things can be included or excluded to change the meaning of pictures.

With digital image capture, the most pressing issue is that we are losing the past. We lose the sequence of images that captures the events leading up to whatever image is chosen for publication.

Click here to tell us what you think about digital photography

When you shoot traditional stills, you shoot rolls of film and there are a series of pictures taken while you wait for the news to happen.

You shoot everything in the possibility that one of those shots may be the news story. You don't always know until afterwards what was the news event.

Jayne West portrait, Jayne West
Jayne West: We are losing the past
With digital capture, the photographer arrives and shoots his images in the same way.

But, because of storage issues on the camera, he will have to delete some of those images as he goes along.

There's a whole process of onsite editing taking place that is absolutely new.

A whole collection of material, that may well be far more interesting in the months and years after the event than in the hard news context, is being lost at that stage.

Self-selection

There's nothing wrong with getting rid of rubbish pictures, and that is very helpful to a photographer.


We don't have the build-up, we don't have the aftermath, we don't have incidental shots of who was there

Jayne West
But if a photographer is focused on getting three, four or five pictures to the news desk as quickly as possible, he is not just getting rid of the rubbish; he's not entering the alternative viewpoint into the process.

He's selecting four or five out of 80 or so images for the picture desk for them to choose where they want to take it.

So, we can see a huge reduction in the amount of material available for selection and a huge reduction in what enters the archive.

Photographers use digital equipment to get an image to the picture desk as quickly as possible because these days newspapers are in competition with television.

Raw material lost

In some ways, it's no different to the invention of the telegraph a 100 odd years ago, when it suddenly became possible to transmit messages over long distances in a very short space of time.

But the collection of original, raw unedited material remained and was placed in the archive. Now it is lost.

There's a plethora of images around the world. Maybe we should be editing them down. There is an argument for that.

But news photographers are increasingly the people with privileged visual access to events; we no longer have a view of an incident that extends beyond the immediate time that the newspaper considers the event as news.

We don't have the build-up, we don't have the aftermath, we don't have incidental shots of who was there.

Surely in those circumstances, when only certain photographers are getting access to certain scenes, the more information we have, the better.

HAVE YOUR SAY

You do not have to delete images because of storage factors. You download all images and put them on to a 50p CD. Or you can put 100 pictures on a 128MB flash card. It takes a couple of minutes to download then you are off again.
Sean Platnauer, UK and Germany


The issue in this article has nothing to do with digital photography. It is about photographers who discard unwanted pictures rather than archiving them

Matt Beard, England
This is only a short-term problem. You can buy 128MB of digital film now for around 80 that will hold many, many pictures. Eventually, we will have digital film that will hold 1000's of hi-resolution pictures, thus removing the need to delete old ones to make room for more. Digital cameras can take between four and six photos at very fast intervals that allows the photographer to choose the best shot from the sequence and delete the rest. This is not losing the past.
Chris Denman, UK

The issue in this article has nothing to do with digital photography. It is about photographers who discard unwanted pictures rather than archiving them. It just happens that the photographers in question are using digital photography. What has probably happened is that the transition from film to digital pictures was handled badly in these cases. I take digital photographs and archive all pictures - good or bad. Some film photographers may discard unwanted pictures and negatives without archiving them. Digital photography is not at fault here.
Matt Beard, England

Don't blame the technology - blame the reporters' that use the medium to display the message. In short - there is nothing different here - it just make touching up photographs easier and more accessible.
Chris Mellor, Netherlands

While I agree with Matt in principle, the process of digital photography has encouraged the disposable attitude. Normally one would wait for the roll to be developed, then archive all 36 shots in a contact sheet sleeve for better or for worse. In regards to file size, a news photographer is shooting 6-20MB files. Even a 1GB Microdrive can only hold so much. Remember that these guys are normally shooting 12 or more rolls of film a day and sending all of them back to the agency. Now, they are only transmitting the "important" shots across the wire and binning the rest since they are staying out in the field for much longer and not carrying around equipment for archiving. But that is the price we pay, speed to press versus archiving.
Anonymous, UK

I can see Jayne has a valid point based on current capacity of digital cameras. The cameras capability and quality will be increased and we move on
Thomas Collins, UK

As with the comment from Matt Beard, this article has nothing to do with digital imagery. I have taken many hundreds of pictures on digital and film, and there is only so much space that you can store slides and negatives, whereas with digital far more images are stored. So if anything in my view there are likely to be far more records today.
Tony Messenger, UK

I think that there is a presumption here that photographs were always taken in vast numbers at any event that may prove to be news after it had happened. In the days when photography was "new", the costs of film plates and developing chemicals would have made it probably even more expensive than our comparative cost of digital storage today. We can assume that a similar type of editing went on in those days, for just the same reasons as has been outlined in this article. In time, when the costs and availability of storage for our medium are reduced, then we can look forward to many many pictures of questionable value being included in collections that can in their turn become the futures "photographic heritage"
Alistair Yell, Scotland


Digital technology means that there will be far more searchable, accessible, images available to us in the future

Rob, France
This sounds like a fairly weak attempt to create a generalised principle from a minor issue. I don't accept that in previous eras photographers were taking more scene-setting shots. But rather more unused shots of the same thing. Digital technology means that there will be far more searchable, accessible, images available to us in the future.
Rob, France

I'm all for digital photography. I've recently bought a digital camera and a negative scanner. My digital camera is proving a boon. Okay, so I do delete a lot of what I take, but that's only because now I take a lot more of the same subject. Until digital I had to wait to see my results. Now they are immediate and if I don't like what I've done I take more and dump the rubbish. For Christmas I intend to put digital images of the day on my web-site so my daughter, in Australia, can see what we've been doing.
Andy W, UK

This fear of losing data that may be useful at some later date is common in many data archiving situations.The self-editing by photographers is not the danger. This is trivial compared to other potential problems. The main dangers are far more banal and technical. Data storage formats change year on year and even digital media has a (very) limited shelf life. Reliance on such storage media virtually guarantees that in only a few years old archived digital images may be practically unrecoverable . Both in terms of media degradation and in terms of the readers being no longer useable with the then current technology. As an example , look around your office and try and see a 5 1/4 inch floppy drive. Pound to a penny you can't.This was state of the art some 15 years ago, now the data on them might as well never existed .
Andrew Torrance, Wales , UK


A digital family album stored on CD or the hard disk of a PC may not be readable in the future when current technology is long out-of-date

Luke Puplett, UK
My concern is that the medium on which the data is stored will not be available in the future. A digital family album stored on CD or the hard disk of a PC may not be readable in the future when current technology is long out-of-date. Photos on paper are universal, your eyes are the only equipment needed to enjoy them. Imagine that you chose to capture your fondest moments on a Betamax video, or on the old 5 1/4 inch floppy disks - only 15 years ago! Today, new storage formats are being invented almost daily.
Luke Puplett, UK

The real issue here is not the capacity of the digital media. It is exactly the underlying antagonism between newspapers and television. And this is very unfortunate because the role of the two is different and, to great extent, complementary. The television is there to add directness and intimacy to the public's experience of events through moving picture and sound, which the written press cannot offer. And newspapers allow an in-depth and multisided analysis that is impossible on TV airtime. In this respect, the aim of the photo-image in newspapers is exactly to illustrate the text. And good photojournalists have been able to do that amazingly well even at speeds of 1 frame per minute, let alone 6-8 frames per second.
SP, Oxford UK

In the early days of photography, when the photographer had to limit the number of pictures he took because of the bulk of the film cartridge and time it took to reload the camera, the world had to rely on the timing, expertise and judgement of these professionals. With the advent of rapid and simple camera operation, instead of having to employ patients and judgement, the photographer could use a scattergun approach, then leave the decision making to someone in the know. As we appear to have a fairly good record of historical events despite the limitations of technology limiting expertise, and then of technology surpassing expertise, I don't think there is any reason to worry about change again.
Andrew Duncan, England


Since the selection process occurs at the same time as the event, the weight of the individual shot is affected by the photographer's feelings at the time about the event

Robin, Australia
Perhaps it is not the medium which is to blame, but the methodology. The capacity for storing images has been increased, not diminished. Since the selection process occurs at the same time as the event, the weight of the individual shot is affected by the photographer's feelings at the time about the event. If the photographer could exercise a bit of discipline and allow the passage of time before making choices which pictures are significant, this medium could truly come into its own.
Robin, Australia

Working in the field of digital imaging I am able to say quite safely that digital cameras have significantly more storage space than they used to. And according to Moore's law in another 18 months that will have doubled. Digital cameras are still in their infancy, and as the quality and resolution of digital imagery increases traditional chemical-based cameras will take a backseat. There will certainly always be a requirement, and a desire, for film, similarly for pen and paper against the computer. I agree that we could lose the record of images that are caught, but there is a limit to the information we should gather.
Mike Westmacott, England

Digital photography suits a throw away society that looks for instant results. It has its merits but doesn't compete with the quality and expression available from traditional photography.
Bryan Martin, England

I don't understand why onsite editing is such a bad thing. For the most part the images that will be rejected will be the ones that ended up on the the cutting room floor of traditional photography anyway. Besides storage issues will be a transient problem as memory production techniques improve the deletion of images "to make space" will become an irrelevance.
John Harding, Wales,UK


No scratches of file stock degradation will take place and with storage medium so cheap there is no excuse to lose images

Keith Marriott, UK
Far from losing historical photographs, digital photography gives the photographer the chance to preserve their work in pristine condition for ever. No scratches of file stock degradation will take place and with storage medium so cheap there is no excuse to lose images. Indeed with the arrival of writable DVD many thousands of pictures can be archived on one disc.
Keith Marriott, UK

While a valid point, it is only so today. Just because a photographer only stores 20 photos on a digital camera today doesn't mean that tomorrow, the same photographer (equipped with a more modern camera) won't be able to store 100 photos. A camera with a mini-hard disk drive (such as the new generation of MP3 players) could store 1000 images. In a couple of years time, the digital photographer will not even fill the memory of the camera in a lifetime of photography. This would lead far more photos being taken than are taken today with film.
Frank Crawford, UK

I think one of the main cruxes of the argument, that of "on location editing" in order to save space is a bit misguided. Rolls of film hold around 36 exposures. Photographers may decide not to shoot pictures as they have limited space. Memory packs from digital cameras can store hundreds of pictures (up to 10 rolls of film). This gives much more freedom to shoot anything and everything on the off-chance that something interesting is captured. I don't think that digital photography will see the "death" of common history, indeed a digital image can outlast anything on film. Celluloid decays over time.
Jason, UK


Digital photography is a blunt tool. Simplistic in terms of its operation, the record it leaves behind and in its production of a flatter, less interesting end-image

Adrian, UK
A digital camera is handy if you just want a point and shoot machine for holiday snaps but there's not way I'm going to give up the flexibility of my traditional SLR, a few good lenses and my beloved high speed films. At the moment digital cameras just can't compete.
Ian Portman, UK

Digital photography is a blunt tool. Simplistic in terms of its operation, the record it leaves behind and in its production of a flatter, less interesting end-image. Not only does it do away with the record of an event's progression as captured on a contact sheet, but the photography itself is aesthetically less dramatic.
Adrian, UK


Whether the "sequence of images" is kept will be at the discretion of the photographer not a limitation imposed by the technology.

John, New Zealand
This article would appear to be a valid comment on the current state of professional digital photography. Over time however the storage capacity of digital cameras will increase. Today 1Gb mini hard disks are available and affordable and can store many high resolution images. This capacity will only increase with time. Whether the "sequence of images" is kept will be at the discretion of the photographer not a limitation imposed by the technology.
John, New Zealand

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Photographer Jayne West
The most pressing issue is that we are losing the past
See also:

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