Digital documentary photography

A few days ago an exhibition of my photographs taken a few years ago in Syria ended. They are pictures that were not intended to be documents and yet, against my will and wishes, became one. Each time I watch the news on TV i can’t stop thinking that it is quite likely that a lot of places I photographed either have ceased to exist or have changed beyond recognition, have been destroyed. I fear that the madness of civil war has managed to do what time hasn’t been able to do over thousands of years. If my fears are true, all that will be left are the pictures; in my case negatives that will last at least a hundred of years and the hand printed gumprints whose permanence is only limited by the durability of the paper I printed them on.

Of course, debating the permanence of prints in the context of thousands of people dying in Syria may seem out of place, but looking at the prints, thinking of the places they depict, preserve, I can’t help thinking about the sense of documentary photography done digitally. After all, document is something that is supposed to last, to still be here when the places and people photographed are no more. It is something that is supposed to be permanent. How will digital imagery fare in this case? The photography dependent on CD’s or, worse still DVD’s that are anything but permanent, dependent on HDD’s prone to malfunction. Sure, there must be agencies that can afford to ensure secure storage for their date, there are special discs and matrixes and permanent optical discs but all these technologies are expensive and available only to a chosen few. Most of us simply can’t access them.

If a wedding documentary is gone after a decade, I honestly couldn’t care less, especially if it was not my wedding. Those images are only important to the customer and his or her family so let them make their choices. If, after some dozen years they have lost the irreplaceable memory, what matters to me is that it should not be through my negligence. Things are quit different when we are dealing with a document of real importance; important for a country, for a community. Let’s imagine that all the pictures documenting the martial law in Poland were taken using digital cameras. Including, of course, the pictures taken by amateur, people participating in those tragic events. Exactly the pictures that the European Centre for Solidarity has started buying recently. Now, thirty, nearly forty years later, how many of these pictures would still be around? Or maybe, the only existing documentation would be that coming from the communist internal security?