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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: photo roulette

4 min read

I got my first digital camera in 2002, so that's how far back my digital memory goes, give or take a scan here and there.

The very first picture is my parents' then-new living room in Turlock, California, where they lived for a little over a decade. The camera wasn't happy with low-light conditions as severe as "inside in the middle of the day", so it's more noise than not. In the corner, my thumb. A real test photo. The camera took six AA batteries, which lasted for thirty photos or so. Still, having previously owned a cheap point-and-shoot, a cheap digital camera was an amazing upgrade.

A few years ago, I moved all my photos into Dropbox, where I pay for extra space. As well as giving me easy access to all of my photographs from every device, the Dropbox app on my phone now automatically uploads every picture I take, so I don't need to worry about archiving them. Most importantly, it gives me a gallery view on every picture I store there, ordered by time.

Sometimes, I pull up the gallery on my computer, and just click.

What was I doing in June, 2004? My pictures tell me that was the month I had my photo in Scotland on Sunday, posing as an exam cheat stealing answers from the Internet (I was working at the School of Education at the time, and I was the person there who looked most like a hacker, along with Sonia Virdi, who would later design Elgg's first public logo). September 2006? I was my friend David's best man, and there I am in a full coat and tails. March 2009? I fell through a hammock in my sister's garden, and there's a picture of my girlfriend laughing uproariously at me.

Click, click, click.

The continuous, chronological stream means that what would be islands of memory are joined together in context. If my memory is the Tube map, with destinations abstracted away from real-life metrics like distance and time, the photo gallery is the equivalent of a street map. Sometimes things that in my head were aeons away from each other turn out to have been part of the same week.

Sometimes, of course, memories will come flooding back and I'll suddenly be overcome with regret about how I handled something. The timespan of my digital archive is enough to encompass every one of my relationships, so often I'll remember a situation and wish I had been kinder or more understanding. Sometimes I'll even want to write them and apologize for something I said, but of course, that would be unfair in itself. Nobody wants someone randomly emailing them about something hurtful they did in 2004. We live with our mistakes.

Click. September, 2005: there's an okapi, and a whole, joyful wedding around it. And then the very next week, a foggy drive up to White Horse Hill. Scroll up a bit, and there's the time we walked the whole British Monopoly board.

Most of the stream is dominated by gatherings: parties, festivals, family gatherings at Christmas and midway through the summer. Sometimes it's just my friends and I hanging out in the pub, or in the park, or along a river somewhere.

In a lot of ways, this is more meaningful to me than my blog. It's intensely personal: each picture is a window into a deeper memory. I don't need these pictures to remember these things, but my mind has its own tracks and grooves; my photo stream is like a soundboard to my life, randomly bringing up things I might not have thought about in years, but that are still important to me.

In 2011, the photo stream abruptly changes to be all California, all of the time; the stream changes seismically, as I did.

I hope 2013 will remain the most emotionally demanding year of my life. I still have flashbacks to my mother, sitting bolt upright on a gurney, telling me to look after my dad, and then being whisked through the double doors into the operating room. I still have flashbacks to losing my relationship even as my mother fought to get better. I don't have photographs of these things, but they show up from time to time, full-screen and vivid, as if some unseen hand was clicking to access my gallery. The pictures I do have of that year are full of glazed-over eyes, smiles that aren't quite real.

Across 2014, and 2015, you can see those smiles come back to life. Fires are re-igniting. My mother is healthy; I am happy; more and more faces become a part of the stream. Poutine missions. Holidays in Monterey. Strolls in Bodega Bay. Even trips back to revisit some of the old faces in Oxford, London and Edinburgh. The stream continues; the flow is unabated.