Faded Pictures

Our life stories are vulnerable to external archives

In 2003, when I was 14 years old, I received my first digital camera as a Christmas gift. Before that, a late-1990s model Polaroid had offered the nearest thing to instant gratification. Polaroids still took several minutes to fully develop, and film was expensive. If I wanted to take a lot of pictures on, say, the last day of school, I would opt for a cheap disposable camera, but those only held 27 shots, and you wouldn’t find out how many you ruined until you got the film developed. The memory card in my digital camera held far more images, which appeared instantly on the screen, and taking hundreds of pictures cost nothing beyond the initial price of the camera. I documented my friends and I hanging out in basements, or killing hours on Friday nights at 99-cent bowling. I wanted to say: “Look: This is who we are. This is who I am,” and I wanted to invite my friends to see what I had framed in my viewfinder.

The resulting pictures didn’t live in an envelope from Camera Click One-Hour Photo anymore — I’d download them from the camera to my computer, and then upload them to the internet, sharing the links over AIM. Before MySpace profile pictures and Facebook albums, our pictures were shared on photo-hosting services. Maybe you used Picturetrail or Photobucket; I used Webshots, where I turned random photos into plot points, shaping them into wittily named albums with wittily phrased captions under each picture, creating a narrative of my teenage life that existed in a perpetual present.

That an external force had dismantled my narrative of my teenage life felt more unsettling than the hard drive crashes or misplaced envelopes of photos I had weathered before

In that present, my friends and I were still together. The summer after I got my digital camera, I moved away from my Long Island hometown and the friends I had grown up with. My move was precipitated by my parents’ deaths — they both died of cancer, first my mom in 2002, and then my dad two years later. My impossible situation was exacerbated by not being able to hang out with my best friend Katie every Friday, or walk to Ralph’s Italian Ices from Kristi’s house in the summer. In those spaces, my loss was intimately known but never mentioned — I could pretend that my life had not been irrevocably shattered. After I moved to my aunt’s house in New Jersey, every time I saw my old friends was an occasion for a photo shoot. I uploaded the pictures to Webshots, preserving the utter comfort I felt with my friends where I could call it up on demand.

As Susan Sontag wrote in 1973, in the first of a series of essays on photography for the New York Review of Books (later collected as On Photography), “The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as anthology of images.” Forty-four years after Sontag wrote these words, we don’t have to keep the “anthology of images” in our heads anymore — our phones and computers hold them for us. My friends and I went on to create Facebook accounts, then to rely on Instagram for sharing photos. I had largely forgotten about Webshots until the advent of my 10-year high school reunion. I was struck with nostalgia for being 14 and 15 and 16; I wanted to look at pictures from those years when I felt so desperate to keep my ties to my childhood friends strongly knotted. But in 2012, Webshots as we knew it was gone — my accounts were deleted.

That an external force — one I had wrongly assumed would forever preserve what I’d entrusted it with — had dismantled that narrative I had created for myself of my teenage life felt more unsettling than the hard drive crashes or misplaced envelopes of photos I had weathered before. Those losses, whether digital or analog, felt more under my control; with Webshots, a business decision destroyed my image anthology without my even knowing it.

Webshots was launched in 1995 as a desktop wallpaper website by Andrew and Dana Laakmann, Narendra Rocherolle, and Nicholas Wilder. According to the AP, in 1999, amid the dot-com boom, the co-founders sold Webshots to Excite@Home for $82.5 million; they bought it back for just $2.4 million in 2002 when Excite@Home liquidated. By then, Webshots had incorporated photo-sharing into its business model, recognizing the need for digital camera users to do something with their photos (even in the early 2000s, only a fraction of digital photographs were printed). In 2004, ComScore Media Metrix scored Webshots as the most popular photo-sharing site, with “about 7.2 million monthly visitors,” according to the New York Times. Using Webshots, it was easy to forget that the photos we uploaded to albums and shared were not wholly our own, that storing photos on Webshots did not mean that they were safe from hard drive crashes — that Webshots’ hosting could end at any time.

The site changed hands two more times: in 2004, the founding trio sold Webshots to CNET for $71 million; in 2007, CNET sold it to American Greetings for $45 million. Throughout, Webshots remained a photo-sharing service. In 2012, though, Threefold Photos — a new company with Rocherolle and Wilder on its board of directors — purchased Webshots and changed the business model drastically. As Gigaom explained, the new, “more modern photo experience” was called Smile by Webshots, a cloud-based app that aggregated photos shared on social media with photos stored on phones. When they made the switch to Smile, Webshots wiped users’ photos if they did not sign in to approve the transfer of their accounts to Smile’s servers — 690 million digital memories that users had trusted Webshots to preserve were vulnerable to deletion.

The service claimed to have “an aggressive plan to notify everyone who does have photos to make sure they aren’t caught unaware.” I never saw that email, if it ever came, nor the article in their FAQ section about the upcoming mass deletion; many other missed the notices too. “On October 2, 2012 American Greetings and Threefold Photos shot their loyal customers through the heart — destroying it all for a quick buck,” reads the About section of a Facebook group with an accompanying website called “Smile by Webshots Sucks.” (Smile only lasted a few months, and Webshots has since reverted to its original wallpaper model.) Commenters on the site and Facebook page report losing baby photos and photos of dead loved ones (“Please help me as you have my grand babies photos since birth and my father before he passed away”) and wedding pictures (“been married for 10 years now in July. was hoping I could get them back for our 10th”). One woman on Facebook summed up her sense of dispossession by writing “I want my PHOTOS!! MY LIFE!”

I didn’t feel like I had lost a part of my life when Webshots was wiped, but I still longed to access my teenage photography; I was hoping it would help me remember what it felt like to be me back then. Smile by Webshots Sucks found a workaround for retrieving lost photos: Via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, Webshots users can search for their old accounts and download ZIP files of their photos, although the search only works for public accounts, and you have to recall your old username. I was only able to remember one of mine accurately.

There was no way for me to piece together my parents’ stories without them here to fill in the voids. The photos became evidence not of my parents’ lives, but evidence of my loss

The ZIP file I downloaded was a series of disorganized, concatenated folders. The largest ones were labeled opaquely with names like “image04.webshots.com”; opening that folder led to one named “4,” which held “4,” “6,” and “8.” Though the photos were stripped of the context I had given them when I uploaded them to Webshots, most of them still served as Proustian madeleines that brought back more than the moment they captured. Other times, instead of triggering memories of the events, what I remembered best was the photos themselves. The ZIP file contained dozens of pictures from a sweet-16 party in 2006. In one, I’m wearing a green dress, posing with my friend’s crutches. I remember posing for that picture, but I don’t remember anything else about the party.

Roland Barthes partly explains the impulse to take a picture in Camera Lucida: “The Photograph is never anything but an antiphon of ‘Look,’ ‘See,’ ‘Here it is’; it points a finger at a certain vis-à-vis, and cannot escape this pure deictic language.” An antiphon is a verse sung responsively, as in the liturgy; we repeat “look” in our heads to ourselves and others as we take photos. The photos I posted on Webshots felt like “pure deictic language,” a way for me to direct attention to the primacy of my childhood friendships.

Susan Sontag argues that when we photograph, we also impose our power, turning photographic subjects into objects that we acquire: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” By taking photos, we are using our power to freeze the moment and to keep it alive, to make it something we can own, not just see or live through. The resulting photographs turn into proof that these moments happened — proof, for instance, that I went to A&S Bagels after midnight with my friends in 2006. As Sontag wrote in 1973, the camera is “the device that makes real what one is experiencing,” or, as we might say now, “pics or it didn’t happen.”

But do photographs merely capture what is real? In Camera Lucida, Barthes compared the camera to other ways we mark time: “I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing.” This implies that the camera records the past like the ticking of a minute hand on a clock. But what happens when the photos we have of the past only offer a partial view — not what actually occurred but only a portion of it? And if photographs don’t help us accurately record the past, then why are we so desperate to hold onto them — and so afraid of losing them, as in what Smile by Webshots Sucks called the “virtual tsunami” that “destroyed” Webshots?

Both film and digital cameras capture images by admitting light (through a lens, aperture, and shutter) and allowing that light to strike an image plane (which is either chemical film or a digital sensor). As Barthes explained, “the photograph is literally an emanation of the referent” — the referent being the thing placed before the lens. The lens redirects the light bouncing off the referent to record its real image on the film or digital sensor. Because of these mechanics, we assume that photographs furnish incontrovertible proof of the past.

But of course, subjectivity is involved in every shot. Sontag was preoccupied with the limits of photographic representation for decades. In her 2002 New Yorker article “Looking at War,” she reminds us that a photograph “is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” The photographs that I lost to Webshots were never the evidence of my teenage years that I wanted them to be — they were colored by what I framed and what I excluded. These photos could only ever demonstrate my point of view (or the points of view of others who used my camera). And framing further excludes the moments that happen before and after the shutter opens and closes. Or, as Barthes put it, “why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other?”

What I chose to photograph as a teen spoke to my subjectivity back then — what I saw, and what I wanted to preserve. My Webshots accounts served as records of my point of view as I wanted to present it to the outside world and to myself; what I chose to group together into albums and captions further cemented my perspective. Even though I was able to get some of my Webshots photos back in that ZIP file, the “virtual tsunami” had disordered my carefully crafted narrative, making it harder for me to truly access who I once was and how I once thought.

Now that digital cameras are ubiquitous, shrunken into our phones, we ceaselessly document our daily lives, adding to the ongoing records of our existence. I don’t think of myself as someone who takes tons of iPhone pictures, but my camera roll from the past month tells a different story. There are pictures from nearly every day: of my neighbor’s elaborate Halloween decorations, of the Brooklyn sky turning millennial pink, and about 100 pictures of my two cats and puppy. We live in these digital photos. They follow us around in the cloud and on apps, always available for recall. If I want help remembering what I was doing this time last year, I can scroll through Instagram and find a photo of a Victorian house and a London plane tree. I took it as I was walking home from the grocery store — my boyfriend and I had just moved, and the house and the tree made me feel in love with where we now lived. I wanted to hold onto the feeling and share it with others.

One woman on Facebook summed up her sense of dispossession by writing “I want my PHOTOS!! MY LIFE!”

The iPhone archive of my quotidian life speaks to how I move through the world, and what moves me. It feels radically different from the photo albums that my parents arranged images in when I was growing up; the narratives contained within those leather-bound volumes only captured special occasions, not our daily reality. My phone albums feel different than my early digital photography on Webshots, too — I only had my digital camera with me when I was with other people, and I could only access my albums when I was sitting at a computer; that, too, was an occasion. Now, my phone is never more than a few feet away from me, allowing me to add to, edit, reshape, and reimagine the narrative of my life at will.

I have been thinking about photography’s limited view of the past since college, when I took a course called “Writing from Photographs”; we employed photos as jumping-off points for nonfiction storytelling, reporting into what the photos couldn’t tell us. In this class, I started to write about my parents via investigations into photos taken before I was born. As I tried to reconstruct what was happening in these photos, I was confronted with my relatives’ gaps in memory — there was no way for me to piece together my parents’ stories without them here to fill in the voids. The perspectives that mattered most to me were theirs. The photos therefore became evidence not of my parents’ lives, but evidence of my loss.

I was reminded of how a photograph can be a reminder of loss while reading Barthes’ descriptions of looking through photographs of his beloved mother shortly after her death: “I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether.” Each photo I have of my parents only holds pieces of my parents as they actually were in life, but the pieces are all I have left. I wish that I had more pieces, that my parents had lived to see the advent of digital cameras and cameras in phones, that they had left behind more of a record of their unique subjectivities, however vulnerable those records might be to erasure.

Despite my cognizance that photographs lie and that the truth can only be found between the frames, I cling to them. I am thankful that the most important photographs I own — those of my parents — are physical. They’ll never succumb to the kind of digital disappearance my Webshots photos did. While it is true that they might be still be lost — to flood or fire or misplacement — and bereave me all over again, demise by accident feels more natural and less maddening than what happened with Webshots. The photo files stored in that archive were part of narratives people constructed of their histories; Webshots wiped them as part of a business decision. Knowing that my Webshots photos were willfully deleted by strangers makes me think of how much of my life’s record I’ve entrusted to outside services like Facebook and Instagram, and how vulnerable those records are to external impositions.

When we lose photographs, we lose the preservation of moments that we had suspended in time. Personal photographs function as evidence of our subjectivity — the fact that we exist as humans with distinct points of view — and evidence that what we photograph existed, even if it was only for a moment in time. Photos capture “what has died but is represented as wanting to be alive,” as Barthes said, meaning that while nothing can ever exist exactly as it was as a freeze-framed moment in the past, the freeze-frame keeps it immortal. But, as Sontag wrote, the act of suspending a dead moment in time makes it into a “memento mori.” As such, taking photographs makes us “participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”

This feeling is compounded, of course, when we look back at photographs we took of people who are now dead, but it comes to mind when I think of the photos I had once posted on Webshots — they were records of versions of myself and my friends that are now dead; now, so are the photographs. If, as Sontag wrote, photography allows us to relate to the world in a way that “feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power,” the loss of these archives feels like a loss of power over my own life narrative. Those narratives are mortal, too.

Kristen Martin recently received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. She is at work on a collection of essays on her parents’ lives and deaths. Her personal and critical essays have been published in Catapult, LitHub, Guernica, Public Books, the Hairpin, the Toast, the Grief Diaries, and elsewhere. She teaches first-year writing at Columbia University and Baruch College.