The Sentimental Value of Photographs in the Digital Age

By Abi Winder @ WPO

Victorian family photographIn this modern era in which technology is advancing faster than you can say the word the word “go”, digital cameras have become accessible to even the most technophobe of people; a fact that we at WPO are keen to embrace. But what does this mean for the sentimental value associated with photographs and how does it carry across from traditional photographic prints to digital photography?

At a recent family gathering where the majority of the guests were over the age of 60, it struck me that nearly all of them were using a digital camera to document the day, it must be said some of them with greater skill than others. For most of them the quality of the photograph is not of great importance, rather the record of the day is what mattersl; a 50th Wedding Anniversary attended by family who only come together every few years.

In stark contrast to this contemporary phenomenon, a second cousin of mine made my day by showing me a photograph taken at the turn of the 20th Century of three relatives who are long deceased. The three men were my grandfather’s father, his grandfather and great-grandfather; in other words, my great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather! Even though I know little about the men in the photograph, I found the photograph intriguing and somewhat moving, because I recognised the sentimental value it holds to my grandfather. Additionally, I felt that the sentimental value held by this photograph was heightened by the fact that there aren’t many such photographs in our family as cameras were few and far between at the time. 

This got me thinking about whether the photograph as an object of sentimental value is diminishing in this era of image and information overload. I wondered how many of the guests at this celebration would go away and print a photograph from the day, hand it down to a younger relative who might take it along to another such event in years to come.  Perhaps none, but that doesn’t mean to say these photographs won’t be passed on. Gone are the days of the family photo album, they sit on a shelf or in the attic gathering dust, replaced by the digital photo frame and online albums. People are adapting to these vast changes; families are arguably brought closer together by modern communication technology, with digital photo sharing playing a huge part in that.

Although it seems a great shame that old photographs that did once hold sentimental value can be bought for pennies in charity shops, perhaps this waste is overcome by the digital existence of a photograph. The digital photograph may have sentimental value but only becomes an object in its own right when someone makes a decision to print it, but that doesn’t mean that the sentimental value of photographs has not been lost through the advances in digital photography. Rather it has become easier for people of all ages and all levels of photographic skill to obtain these sentimental photographs.

So what’s the moral of the story... Firstly, hold on to the old photographs you have because you never know how much they could mean to someone. Secondly, share your digital photographs with your family, friends and even the rest of the world through channels such as WPO. And finally, if you are an advocate of digital photography with thousands of photos on your computer, make sure you back up your hard drive!

Do you have any old photographs with interesting stories that you’d like to share with us? If so, please leave your comments below as we’d love to hear them.


  • NationalPhotographer 17/08/2010 18:41

    I recently restored a old family photo that had gathered dust, stains and damage over the years.
    They were delighted that they had this small 3x4 print now at 6x9 all clean and restored like new. It now sits pride of place in their home.

    I think with the digital age there is a popularity in taking snap shots and keeping them on a camera or computers, uploading and sharing them online. The downsides are that people lose photos, either by losing a phone or a computer virus and then they are gone for good.
    I have had many calls from photographer and people who are upset that they have lost the photo's they have had.
    But many people do not backup anything, and when they do they do not undertake the back up correctly.
    One clear and easy point is simple.. so to point out the obvious.
    You back up your images on a hard drive on your computer. There is a surge or house fire.. it all burns.

    There is a great difference between a photo and a 'nice photo' as my clients say, many people have contacted me where relatives have died after a wedding and they want some nice photo's to remember them by.
    I think that peoples views on photography and the memories they hold are casual and they feel there are always going to be opportunities for a 'proper' photo shoot, a record, a portrait and hand me down in the near future, but they seldom do.

    The problem with the availability and the casual photography from camera phones and such like, is that it has devalued real photography. The quality of images that most people take is very low, and more often than not, they are never printed.
    Also the problems with cheap cameras is that they distort the image and the person never looks like they do in a photo. This has two effects, low confidence and also a fear of having a photo taken, I have wrote many articles about this, and the benefits of going to a professional photographer for "real photographs".

    While people may feel that this comment I am about to make is strong, I know the real needs and morals behind it.
    If a family of one man and one woman have one child, they take photos on their Iphone, but one day the woman and child are killed in a car crash; would the dead battery, lost phone, low quality image be printed and held onto? would you be happy with the print you could obtain?
    You would not, I suffered an injury and have no visual imagination, I don't even know what my daughter looks like and I cant picture her. This is one reason that I took up photography as a direct replacement for my mind. I spend much time regretting the things that have happened in the past that I can no longer remember or see in my minds eye.

    I feel that people do not live with consideration or think of the hindsight value of photographs that capture them; And if it not current, do they think of family in the future?

    I was recently ask by my daughter (5) if she could have some photos printed, this totalled just over 100 images of family life and the fun times she has had in her life, of course I have triple backups of all my photo's but very few prints.

    I do also have photo's from when I was a child and there are many with family that have passed away, I think they are great, I shared one with a new family member of her husband when he was younger. She was ecstatic, and its for these reasons I love photography and like the record of life that I can share and pass down my family.

  • Abi Winder @ WPO 18/08/2010 13:23

    Thank you for your feedback.

    I think it is interesting that photography can be associated with loss, in terms of filling a void and how valuable it can be as a visual reminder of treasured memories. I think there could be a debate between whether investing in some quality prints from a professional shoot or continually engaging in to casual photography that you describe, documenting every moment is more effective in achieving this.

    Another point to make is that in the same way that a hard drive could be destroyed in a fire, so could a lifetimes worth of photographic prints. This is obviously where the internet comes in, as uploading photographs to the web can mean (technical issues aside) that they are recoverable if anything were to happen to a computer, hard drive or printed photo album.

    Either way, I share in your opinion that photography is a valuable record of life in terms of family records and sentimentality. Photographs are truely remarkable in this respect, be they digital or printed.

  • gersart 03/11/2012 04:15

    I have been working with digitizing our family photographs because of recent deaths in our family. I am also working on ways to integrate an audio dialogue that goes along with the images from the remaining people who were at the locations. What I have found is that recording the images individually, out of context for the album, makes them lose their meaning.

    My entire art practice right now revolves around examining the 'context' that a digital file has, and people's values towards these impermanent forms.

    When a family sifts through a lifetime of memories from a loved one who passes away, the shoebox full of photographs becomes an important point of reminiscing and discussion.

    No one will ever treasure your hard drives when you die.

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