Mass-market consumer photography started around 1900 with Kodak’s ‘Brownie’ camera, about $25 in today’s dollars. From everyday to iconic snapshots, film cameras captured the first automobile and first powered flight, devastation in the San Francisco earthquake, the civil rights movement, and World Wars I and II.
Photography moves one’s understanding of a historical event from being merely a hypothetical story to becoming a truth that should never be forgotten.
As cameras became smaller, more advanced, and eventually ubiquitous inside devices we carry with us everywhere we go, our lives and environments are being documented in high-resolution, timestamped, geotagged images.
As time goes by, and as our elders pass away, history is forever lost. Walking around modern-day Berlin, there’s less and less evidence of World War II as buildings are torn down and U-Bahn stations renovated. As roads get repaved throughout North America, there’s less and less evidence of expansive streetcar lines from the early 20th century. But these memories and facts exist in hundreds of thousands of photographs.
380 million photos are uploaded to Facebook and Instagram every single day, but what happens to these images when we die? What good are these images doing while we’re alive, beyond getting a few ‘Likes’ or page views before never being seen again? We’re documenting our worlds in private accounts and hoarding our memories in sealed silos to be taken to our graves.
We all recognize the irreplaceable value of historic photographs. Film negatives have been saved in closets and safe deposit boxes, and passed down from grandparent to parent to child to library. But hard drives end up in dumpsters.
I got my first digital camera in 2000, a one-megapixel Kodak DC215 Millennium Edition. Many cameras later, my photo library has amassed over 400,000 photos. This library is my most valued possession, not just because I license some of my work and enjoy looking at memories, but because of the intrinsic and documentary value of the work itself.
Photographs don’t have to be remarkable to have value; an image is better captured than not. iPhone photos I casually took on a whim just five years ago show buildings and urban infrastructure now gone. Even casual, everyday images are contributions to a body of artistic and documentary work, and if that work sits in a private account, it serves no benefit to society and future generations. If one passes away while this work exists only on their hard drive, it will be nothing more than meaningless silicon.
And then there’s copyright: in the United States, photographs taken after 1978 are protected under copyright law for 70 years after the date of the creator’s death. That means a photo taken today by a 20-year-old might not enter the public domain for another 130 years, and it would be a tragedy if the millions of photographs being captured every day couldn’t be used decades from now in a meaningful, historical, and journalistic way.
Flickr allows photo uploaders to pick a license for every image uploaded. “All rights reserved” is the default, but more permissive options exist too. Creative Commons licenses allow others to use images with attribution, and some versions of the license prohibit commercial uses of the work, or derivative works. These are great options, but Flickr doesn’t do a good job advocating or explaining the use of Creative Commons licensing for new or unfamiliar users, leaving some uncomfortable with the idea. Facebook doesn’t allow image uploaders to specify a license, even on publicly-posted images.
Moreover, no online photo-hosting service allows users to provide end-of-life instructions; a ‘photo licensing will’ that gives instructions for how to license and distribute images after the creator’s death. Facebook allows its users to appoint a ‘legacy contact’ to handle a user’s account after they die, but it merely allows someone else to post a final message and manage friend requests. High-resolution images remain locked down.
In mid-2015, someone asked Flickr: “My wonderful mother sadly has passed away … is it possible for me to inherit her photographs?” Many other Flickr members responded to the thread, expressing concern that Flickr might immediately delete the account upon learning of the user’s death. Flickr’s official response was: “the only options are to leave the account as is or request it be deleted,” citing the legal complexities.
Indeed, there are legal complexities: the estate of the deceased owns the their copyrights, but the composition and management of an estate varies by jurisdiction. If the deceased was her mother’s only child, and if her mother was unmarried or widowed, it’s very likely she has legal authority and ownership of the photos Flickr is preventing her from accessing, managing, downloading, and distributing.
But Flickr need not involve itself in these complexities: Flickr could simply allow a user to appoint someone else to manage their account in full after death. Then, upon receipt of a death certificate, control transfers to someone else. But for now, the deceased’s next of kin likely isn’t able to download the deceased’s images, print them, or release them into the public domain.
Our wealth is not just cash, it’s also our experiences and intellectual property. Death is not a rarity, and it’s something that Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, GitHub, Google, and every other online service will routinely have to deal with. But they’re ignoring the issue, for now, at the cost of lost history.
History is not a novelty; it guarantees freedom and ensures progress on every level of society, education, government, and technological achievement. We all have a role to play in preserving our experiences and perspectives for future generations.
“Photography can put a human face on a situation that would otherwise remain abstract or merely statistical. Photography can become part of our collective consciousness and our collective conscience. It is a way to remember history and to try not to relive the mistakes of the past.” — James Nachtwey, American photojournalist
History does not end at black-and-white film negatives someone else made a century ago, history is also captured through photographs and videos you took yesterday, last week, and last year.
If you care about this work being preserved after you’re gone, consider creating a ‘photo will’ to dictate how your work should be used and distributed, or—if you don’t anticipate commercially using the work—consider donating the images to a historical society or permissively licensing your work now and uploading them to Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph: Extravehicular activity during the NASA Apollo 9 mission, on 6 March 1969. Image no. AS09-20-3097, public domain.