“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.” Ray Bradbury
My friend is standing in front of me, her head stuck looking down. Her thumb has been scrolling endlessly over the glass of her smartphone for several minutes. Sometimes, she stops the motion and looks carefully at the thumbnails, then starts scrolling again. “It is somewhere, I know it is. Wait! Here it is! No! It is not this one” She says. Somewhere buried amongst thousands of other photos, there is one she has been wanting to share with me, a photo that captured a special moment, something beautiful. Feeling the weight of the endless search, she sighs and concludes, defeated: “Anyway, I swear it was so beautiful… I just wished I would have been able to show you.”
Not a week goes by without someone wanting to share with me the photos they love and most of the time, the moment is ruined by their failure in finding the pictures that mirror their memory or the intimidating challenge of suddenly having to choose the right one amongst a series of simile photos, just slightly different from one another, while I wait in front of them, my eyes wandering, looking for distraction as the minute pass.
The world of photography has changed a lot since the days of film. Back then, the craft was expensive and time consuming. Every time you pressed the shutter, you were mindful of the outcome, both financially and in the amount of work needed. Space was also very limited. Film rolls contained at the maximum 36 photos and the amount of rolls one would or could carry was depending on the level of trouble you would want to go through. Once the pictures developed, they would be manually put, one by one, into an album. By doing this, by actively participating into the creative process and development of the narrative, people took ownership of the stories they wanted to tell. There was always a certain pride in opening an album and showing it to a friend or a family member. And for those friends or family, the experience was memorable and personal. These stories were crafted with time and commitment. Each photo placed with care and thoughtfully. The order far from being random, the creator of the album had set each photo with the intent of telling a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Today, the picture is quite different!
Technology has conquered the limitations we once faced. But with this new reality came a world a new problems.
Our capacity to create without any limit has rendered us prisoners of our own creations. We don’t own our photos anymore, they own us.
When I am asked what is the best advice for doing photography, my answer is always the same – learn to DELETE FIRST. As much as we are privileged, living with tools that give us so much freedom to experiment, that freedom quickly disappears if we are not able to delete the junk – and yes junk it is!
Learning to delete is to my opinion the greatest challenge and most necessary skill today’s photographers must develop. And since we are all photographers now (amateurs and professionals) that means that everyone should learn to delete.
Deleting photos is more than making room in your library, it is an empowering skill and a crucial tool in developing your craft. By deleting the ones you don’t like, you start to discover what you like. You start taking ownership of your photos. And with ownership comes pride. And with pride comes value. Instead of being passive, you become an active participant in the art of telling stories. Instead of letting the photos dictate your narrative, you create the narrative.
Recently, well-known photographer and an early Instagram fan, Richard Koci Hernandez, announced he was deleting all of his pictures from the photo-sharing service. Talking to Chris O’Brien at Venture Beat, Richard stated that:
“I’ve always felt that a photograph deserves a life span. Nothing should live forever… my ‘photo stream’ has recently seemed less like a stream and more like a dammed-up river. I know this all sounds very heady, but I’ve been thinking that the Internet doesn’t respect time in the way that I think it should. Especially in relation to photographs. I’ve always thought that the institution of an art gallery was a satisfying way to experience work. And recently my Instagram account has felt like an exhibition of work that is always on display, the doors are always open 24/7, and that dismayed me a bit.
Think about it. If you love someone’s work and a local gallery puts on an exhibition, there is an excitement — you attend the exhibition and potentially you take away a print, a book, or a poster, and there is a sense of having had an experience and finality once the show ends and moves on. I desperately wanted my work on Instagram to have that same quality. Simply put, I’m saying that the current exhibition is over and it’s time to hang a new show. On another note, because of the seemingly permanent nature of an online photo gallery, I didn’t want everything I’ve ever done always on display. Some of the work that I’ve posted isn’t as mature as I’d like it to be, and it deserves to be forgotten.
Deleting these images gives me a sense of freedom, of potentially shedding an old skin and developing a new one. It’s very liberating. I’ve taken this idea to the extreme and many of my close friends and in particular my wife have had to prevent me from permanently deleting the original files themselves.
If I had my way, I’d pore through the work, find my favorites, print them out, and put them in a box, then I’d delete all the originals. In this flood of digital photographs, in an era where nothing seems special or sacred, I love the idea of scarcity. In a funny way, it’s just another version of Snapchat.”
Richard brings forth two very important points: the space to create and the value of a photo.
So the question begs to be asked. What is the value of our photos today? How much do we truly value the moments we try so hard to capture and record? Do we really honor those precious episodes by dumping our photos into a virtual cumulative album that has no narrative, no order, other than the dates they were taken. What is to say about our relationship with our photos when we fail at finding them or lose the expected joy by facing too many of the same?
Barry Schwartz in his TED talk “On the paradox of choice” presented to the audience his belief that today’s abundance infringes us rather than liberating us.
“It produces paralysis rather than liberation… With so many options to choose from people find it very difficult to choose at all… Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice we end up less satisfy with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from…”
And I believe that the great irony of our time is that our photos have become ephemeral but not because there existence is limited, but because their value disappears, despite of their existence. By taking so many photos and failing to keep only the good ones, we have lost the ownership of the moments we are precisely trying to own.
Learning to delete our photos therefore is necessary to give our power of creativity room to grow and to return the value and respect to our captured moments.
“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”
― Thich Nhat Hạnh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation