The other day I did something really stupid. I accidentally deleted a ton of photos on my camera before uploading them to my laptop.
Cindy is going away this weekend with a bunch of her friends, and asked me to charge the Ricoh and for me to erase the memory card, so there would be enough space for her to take photos.
I’m generally forgetful, so I decided to do it that instant. I (mistakingly) believed I already backed up all the photos from the camera, but I didn’t. I took a series of photos of Cindy (some which I really liked), but ended up accidentally deleting them.
The funny thing is that I didn’t realize I did so instantly– only about an hour later, I had a feeling like I just got punched in the gut, and I realized the stupid mistake I made.
Trying to recover my photos
Of course the first thing I did was try to recover the photos. I downloaded an open source program (PhotoRec) that recovered some of the JPEG images. The problem is the photos that I accidentally deleted were DNG raw files (not supported by PhotoRec).
I then ended up spending around 2-3 hours trying to find other programs that would recover the deleted RAW photos from my camera. I tried out all these different programs, and couldn’t find any that worked properly. Not only that, but I was stressed out because the programs were quite expensive.
What is really important?
But then I suddenly had an insight: “Why am I wasting all this time to recover these photos I shot of Cindy, when the real life Cindy is right in front of me?”
In trying to feverishly recover these photos of Cindy, I wasted 2-3 hours which I could have used to spend time with Cindy.
What if those were the last 2-3 hours I would have with her? And why do I care so much that I deleted the photos? Shouldn’t she be more important than my photos of her?
Which also got me thinking– as photographers, do we value photos of life more than life itself?
This isn’t the first time I accidentally deleted a bunch of photos on accident. And I’ve also had hard drives crashing in the past, which caused me to lose all my photos.
In both situations, I felt like shit. I felt like something was ripped out of my soul. I’ve also lost undeveloped rolls of film in the past, which also gave me a nagging sense of loss and the haunting question, “What if?”
What is more important?
Why are photos so important?
Photos are recordings of a moment in time. Photos render the light surrounding a scene, not the scene itself.
Losing a photograph feels like losing a memory– a part of yourself.
But who are we? Are we just organisms compiled with memories? If we don’t have memories, are we really human?
A day after accidentally deleting all these photos, I wondered to myself: “What if I didn’t try to recover the photos, and just let it go?”
Life isn’t permanent. It is always in flux; always changing, always moving, and never constant.
The past doesn’t “exist” anymore. Only the present moment does. So why do we over-nostalgize and value the past, more than the present moment?
I also then realized that often our past is a chain to our freedom to our present selves. We become trapped in old ways of thinking, old memories, old friendships, and old experiences.
In some ways, killing the past or not being attached to the pat helps you be reborn in the present moment; and more appreciative of the present moment.
When I deleted my photos on accident, I remember how Helen Levitt shot color street photographs in her neighborhood for the New York Museum of Modern Art, and suddenly a thief broke into her apartment, and stole all her negatives.
What did Helen Levitt do? Did she blame fate, and give up? No– she restarted without any spite, and ended up making even better images afterwards.
So perhaps I can use this lesson of accidentally deleting my photos to strive even harder to make better photos of Cindy, and to also savor my life with her more.
I also realized that people matter more than photos. To make another human being feel like shit (in order to make a good photo) isn’t worth it to me.
Of course moving forward, I’m also going to learn a lesson from my mistake and be more careful with digital files. I might try a new experiment: never delete photos from SD cards and just keep ordering new SD cards when I’m out of space. SD cards are now so cheap, and I can take over a thousand photos on a 16gb card. And SD cards barely take any space– perhaps I can keep them sealed in a zip lock bag (dated).
I also want to remind myself to print more photos that are meaningful to me– because physical prints are much more robust than fragile digital files (easy to delete, become corrupted, or inaccessible).
But once again– the ultimate lesson is to not become too attached to our photos; to know that living a meaningful life with meaningful relationships with our loved ones is what matters the most.