Olli Thomson

You Will Be Deleted

I grew up with Doctor Who. Not the glossy reboot; the original version. I started watching during the era of Jon Pertwee’s third doctor who seemed to spend most of his incarnation fighting aliens in quarries. My teenage years coincided with the reign of Tom Baker, whose early years in the role are still the most memorable (for those of us old enough to remember). The later years of Baker and the rest of that first cohort of Doctors rather passed me by. I’ve been a regular viewer of the revived Doctor Who since it began back in 2005. Rather inconveniently this coincided with my departure from the UK so I’ve had to rely on VPN’s,The Pirate Bay and Bit Torrent to see the show.

The great strength of the new version is that the producers drew heavily on the earlier series’ for plot lines and villains. A bigger budget and better technology meant that the rubber suits, the plywood and the cardboard that rendered Zygons, Cybermen and Daleks a little less than scary, could be enhanced in reality and digitally, but the bad guys were still recognisably the same bad guys.

Most of my childhood companions leaned towards the Daleks as the ultimate miscreants, but I preferred the Cybermen and it was gratifying to see them turning up regularly in recent series. having undergone a very effective ‘upgrade’ of their own. Little did I know that the these new Cybermen would give me one of the most useful pieces of photographic advice I received when I, belatedly, joined the digital era.

From Series 2 Episode 5, Rise of the Cybermen:

CybermanYou are rogue elements.
DoctorBut we surrender!
CybermanYou are incompatible.
DoctorBut this is a surrender!
DoctorBut we’re surrendering — listen to me, we surrender!!!
CybermanYou are inferior. Man will be reborn as Cyberman, but you will perish under maximum deletion. DELETE! DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!!

There it is folks. Sound advice for all photographers from the Cybermen in the era of dirt cheap memory, and 10 frames per second. DELETE! DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!

Most of us have far too many photographs clogging up hard drives, cloud drives, tablets, phones, online photography sites. Count them, if you can. Then do some maths. Even with a puny 10,000 images — not many by today’s standards — viewing each one for a mere 15 seconds would take you over 40 hours of continuous viewing. This is before you view all those other images on your Instagram feed, on Facebook, on Flickr or wherever else you graze photographically. Make that 100,000 images and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

There are three negative consequences of this. First, we rarely see most of our images. A quick glance when we first take an image or when we download it to a hard drive or upload it to a cloud drive or photo sharing site might be the one and only time we ever see it. We may not have deleted it electronically but we have effectively deleted it mentally. Second, when there are so many images to look at we skim. Even a measly fifteen seconds is too long to spend on an image. So we scroll through our images steams, often simply glancing at an image as it glides by, stopping only, briefly, when something catches our eye. No need for subtlety here. Make it big and bright and garish, that’s the way to get noticed. Third, if we have a vast number of images, barely seen, its becomes increasingly unlikely that we will ever spot the one gem of an image hidden in there. Images that could have become something outstanding, or even merely good, on their own are buried forever under a digital avalanche, never to be found.

I often thought about this third point on visits to the National Zoo in Washington DC (which gives me an excuse for a panda picture). The star attraction was the family of pandas and the great thing about the zoo is that the grounds opened early in the morning, before the advertised opening time for the zoo proper. Thus it was possible to visit the zoo before the crowds arrived at a time when the animals, including the pandas, were most active. Naturally, lots of photographers turned up on these early mornings to take pictures of the pandas. They stayed for an hour or more, and shot with their cameras in continuous shooting mode — 4 frames per second, 5 frames per second, 10 frames per second. I can’t imagine how many hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of images these folks took each time they visited, and I couldn’t begin to understand how you would work through that many images to find the highlights. I imagine some mornings some of these individuals ended up with more photographs of pandas than there are actual pandas in the world.

So, delete, delete, delete. Give yourself the space and time to properly look at, and enjoy, your best photographs. Stop trying to absorb endless streams of images. Concentrate instead on really appreciating a smaller number of higher quality images. This will, in turn, inspire you to make your own photographs better. Once you find your best images find ways to put them on display — online, in print, in a book, in a calendar.

Robert Frank’s famous book The Americans contains 83 pictures. I have read that in the course of his travels while shooting for that project he took around 28,000 images. Frank, shooting in the film era, did not have the option to delete but he did have the option to reject. Instead of bombarding the world with 28,000 prints of everything he shot, or burying 28,000 negatives away in boxes, he edited his images, rejected those that weren’t good enough, printed those few that were and created one of photography’s most iconic publications.

Delete. Delete. Delete. Be ruthless.

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