The power of images — and their fragility

This morning’s Observer column.

Dear Photograph is a remarkable demonstration of the power of ordinary, humdrum photographs to evoke memories. Anyone who has ever found a shoebox of old prints in an attic will know this. They yield up images of ourselves when we were young, slender and innocent, of our parents with unlined, carefree expressions and unfurrowed, untroubled brows, of holidays once enjoyed, places once visited. Photographs freeze moments in time, reminding us of who we were – and, by implication, of who we have become.

But Dear Photograph is also a stark reminder of how threatened this power of photography has become. There is, for one thing, the brusque, matter-of-fact, upfront Terms and Conditions of the site. “When you submit your materials,” it reads, “you grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free licence to use the work to be used, copied, sub-licenced, adapted, transmitted, distributed, published, displayed or otherwise under our discretion in any and all media”. Or, to adapt the famous broken English internet meme, “all your memories are belong to us”.

CORRECTION: Broken link to now fixed. Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.