The Death of the Family Photo Album

Modern Family

The Death of the Family Photo Album

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

My Saturday morning began with my angry mother, shaking the life out of me and screaming “Almari saaf karni hai! Utho!” She clearly thought 7 am on a Saturday was a great time to remind me about my promise to clean out our old almirah.

With a sleepy head and a bad attitude, I began tugging at the creaky door of the dull grey metal box that adorns every Indian household. Obviously, the almirah’s contents came tumbling down on my head like a flimsy Jenga tower. It was the best thing that could have happened that early on a weekend.

For there among the heap, was an old family album. It was like watching my childhood flash by.

With each turning page, I relived past anniversaries, birthdays, New Year’s parties, and family trips. There I was, the awkward kid retiring into the corner, staring into the forbidding camera, sucking on a finger. Obviously, I was dressed in the peak fashion of the ’90s – bright Shah Rukh Khan t-shirts, camouflage shorts, and sunglasses borrowed from my dad. Each picture opened a floodgate of memories of life with my young parents and a baby sister. I recalled conversations I’d had, the numerous cakes I cut, and the many houses we moved out of.

Back then, cameras would be kept away in our parents’ closet until a special occasion arrived. Today however, our cameras are perpetually out capturing everything from our morning grump to our Swiggy meal. Our regular days are flush with so many pictures, that the “specialness” of the family album has just about faded.

After the vacation photos were done, out would come the college albums, in sepia and monochrome.

Last year, a piece on The Telegraph explained that the Professional Photographers Association of America has labelled us the “lost generation” – people who risk losing “magical images of their childhood and with it, a strong sense of their history.” “[Of] an estimated 631 million photographs each year, around a third of the total taken, will remain forever on accounts to which we’ve forgotten the passwords, or on obsolete hard drives, making them inaccessible to us and future generations. Which is a shame, not only for nostalgia and personal interest, but for something deeper. ‘Looking at family photos helps children create a sense of identity and gives them the gift of the past,’ explains Dana Denis-Smith, whose recent TED talk ‘How to be Remembered’ is about the importance of preserving our memories.”

Denis-Smith is right about my family at least.

This browsing of photographs was a great way for us to spend time together. Months after a pleasant family trip, we’d collect printed copies of our pictures and spend hours on end filling up the plastic pockets with crisp, coloured photographs. The entire family would gather in one room, giggling, laughing, and swapping stories over the most embarrassing ones in the bunch. More than my sister and I, my parents truly revelled in this activity. After the vacation photos were done, out would come the college albums, in sepia and monochrome. Dad would compliment mom’s lovely long hair and mom would blush. It was a long, idyllic walk down memory lane and time would just go by. There was no fighting over the TV remote or the mobile charger.

And that seemed like a lifetime ago – the dust that filled my nose as I leafed through the album is a testimony. In an age of family selfies, the old photo album is a relic of the past. An NPR article titled In The Digital Age, The Family Photo Album Fades Away states that it was easier for our parents and grandparents to organise, assemble, and pass along a handmade book that told the story of their children’s lives through photographs.

But the digital world has complicated that rite of passage, resulting in an unruly collection of digital pictures. Sorting through this virtual clusterfuck is analogous to attempting to sort an enormous shoebox full of pictures, most of them of people your family won’t recognise.

Judging by the faded state of my Kodak photos, perhaps hard copies our family albums aren’t meant to last anyway. I’ll miss ’em. To me, they’re an important part of being a family. And staring at your phone’s screen just isn’t the same.