The Photo Explosion. Is this Helping or Hurting Us?


First Photo Ever Taken

Nicéphore Niépce’s earliest surviving camera photograph, 1826 or 1827: View from the Window at Le Gras (Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France)

Relative to other technology trends, photography has a long, rich history that dates back to when the first photo was taken in 1826.  The photo development process required over 8 hours of exposure to create, resulting in the crude but groundbreaking achievement.  A short 180 years later, the advancements in photography have been amazing and we now find ourselves in the middle of a photo explosion!

How Many Pictures?

So, how many photos have been taken since that monumental day back in 1826?  While the exact number will never be known, research has put the estimate at 3.8 trillion!  As impressive as that number is, what’s happened over the last several years is even more amazing.  As this chart shows, there has been steady growth over the last ten years but check out what’s happened since 2011.  In 2011, there were about 380 billion pictures snapped.  Yahoo estimates that in 2014, that number will jump to nearly to 1 trillion!

Photo Growth Trend Chart

What’s Behind the Photo Explosion?

So what’s behind this photo explosion trend?  Certainly the incredible proliferation of smartphones with built in cameras has had a huge impact.  It is estimated that in 2014, worldwide smartphone shipments will surpass 1.4 billion units.  About 83% of these units will have built in cameras.  That’s a lot of picture-taking firepower!  Impressive, but that’s only part of the story.

The other driver in this trend is the incredible ease with which photos can be shared across social media channels to anyone, anywhere in the world. Over 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day.  20 billion photos have been shared on Instagram since it burst onto the market in 2010.  So, that’s certainly contributing to the photo explosion.

Yes, the smartphone and social sharing trends have had a major impact on the increase in the number of pictures snapped in recent years.  But, there is another insidious culprit  — the selfie.

Selfies Gone Wild!

While self portraits are nothing new, when the smartphone and social sharing trends collided and made selfies easy and hip, boom!  The photo explosion.

First Selfie Photo

Robert Cornelius took what is believed to be the world’s first selfie, a self-portrait he snapped one day in October 1839 while standing in the yard behind his family’s lamp store in Philadelphia.

The selfie phenomena was immortalized in 2013 when the publishers of the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary declared selfie to be their “word of the year.”  And who can forget when this trend hit the world stage.  Who would have thought that three of the most prominent leaders in the world would snap a selfie (grins included) at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service! Even Pope Francis has joined in on the fun.  Over 1 million selfies are taken every day and that number just continues to grow.


Is the Photo Explosion Trend Good or Bad?

There’s no doubt that photos are enriching our lives in a big way.  I love this view from sushicam on the topic of why we take pictures: “In essence, pictures help us remember.  They are the closest we have yet come to true time travel, to allow us to go back and experience the feelings we had, and remember.”  [Tweet “”Pictures are the closest we have yet come to true time travel.” Jeff Laitila “]

Bag of Old Photos

Yes, I’m guilty! My personal bag of old photos waiting to be organized.

With that sentiment in mind, contrast our situation today to that of our parents, grandparents, or great grand parents.  For them, the number of photos was probably measured in hat boxes.  Generations back, if you had a couple of good pictures of your family members to revisit, you were lucky.  Now, we measure photos in gigabytes with many people taking thousands of pictures each year.  

Photobook SharingThere’s something interesting here.  Ever ask someone older, say a grandparent, to share what was going on in a particular photo from their distant past?  It’s amazing how most will recount, with great passion and detail, exactly what was going on in and around that photo.  This typically leads to other rich memories that the photo triggers.  Go pull out a photo of your older child as a toddler or your mother when she was younger.   Do you feel that emotional pull when you look at photos from the past?  A sense of nostalgia?   Do other memories start flooding in? Our brains are amazing in how we recall the feeling of joy when seeing some photos or start feeling sentimental or sad about how time flies.  It’s powerful stuff.  For some, it’s kind of like drug… and many find themselves wanting more.

So, you would think that taking and sharing more photos means we are capturing more memories, right?  Or, is this massive onslaught of photo taking just making it harder to organize and enjoy our memories in a meaningful way?  Sounds counterintuitive, right?  Well there is actually some research that addresses this very question.  Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, has long studied the science of memory and her research of what she calls “the photo taking impairment effect” is interesting.

“The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue’s hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head,” she told NPR regarding an experiment in which subjects took pictures of objects at an art museum and were later quizzed about the objects. “They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them.”

What we do know is that a photo is not a memory.  A photo triggers memories, which can change over time.  That’s what’s awesome.  Each time you view a photo, it may trigger different memories of what was going on at that time with the people and places represented in the photo.

So are we better off?  If you are snapping pictures continuously, dumping them into a digital bucket, and not revisiting them enough because tagging and organizing things in a meaningful way has become incredibly difficult, maybe not I believe there is an opportunity to have it both ways.  Keep snapping the meaningful pictures while also taking time to “be in the moment.”.  Get those pictures organized (more on this in an upcoming post) so that reminiscing is an easy and rich experience.

These are interesting times.  The photo explosion trend has just begun.  Let’s make sure it’s not at the expense of our memories.

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