Why the photo album trumps the digital slideshow

I can't walk into my home without staring at myself. Half of all available flat surfaces in the living area are occupied by family photographs in temporary frames. Loose prints are tucked into mirror corners or stuck on the refrigerator. If we're not to become a bunch of narcissists, it's time to invest in a new photo album.

I come from trigger-happy stock.

As early as 1980, a 4m-long and 1m- deep case was needed at home to hold our family photo albums. My father even taught me elementary physics through an inherited Brownie box camera, though we never managed to develop the plates.

My maternal grandfather's study was papered with collages of photos taken over decades, each carefully marked with the date and an explanatory story identifying the persons and the event documented.

He was an avid amateur photographer and film-maker whose massive pile of slide films and stills took years to convert into digital form, even after hiring professionals to help. His son, my uncle, is still going through the trove, touching up images and ever so often sending a recently rediscovered moment of family history to the communal e-mail group.

I fell in love with one recently sent photo which at first seemed evidence of time travel or alternate realities. It showed a younger me cuddling a newborn and managing a toddler with a flyaway hat. It was actually a 34-year-old photograph of my mother with me and my younger brother and it wormed its way so deep into my heart that I had to head to a printer.

Digital photos may seem convenient and indestructible, but there is something about holding a 3R photo print, tracing the laugh lines of a loved one and feeling the weight of memory as a gentle pressure on the fingertips.

This is why we have so many loose photos lying around at home. Snapping selfies or wefies with our smartphones is how we share our day-to-day existence with the extended family on WhatsApp instant messages, but truly memorable events must be commemorated with prints.

Planting a smacking kiss on the screen of my smartphone is silly and unsanitary, but a print of my newborn niece or growing nephew can be cuddled, pressed to the heart and then carefully tucked away in an album that I will one day show off to embarrass the kids in front of their friends.

I just ran out of storage space for my digital photos on Google Drive, but I can't remember the last time I went through the albums with the people captured inside.

Memory storage cards for cameras and smartphones ensure that we can snap a hundred or more photos a day and tuck them securely away in personalised folders that only we have the power to access.

Just as e-readers deprive readers of the pleasure of sharing books with other book-lovers, digital image storage shrinks the photo album to a mostly selfish pleasure. Worse, it is a pleasure that is rarely enjoyed, either because there are too many photographs or because there are too few physical reminders that the photos were taken.

My father returned from a trip recently so my mother, brother and I crowded around his smartphone to look at the photos he had taken and hear the attendant stories.

I was reminded of a long-ago occasion when we all flipped through my parents' wedding album together. That experience was far superior, easier on the eyes, easier to flip between pictures and nobody fell off the sofa while craning for a better view either.

We have experimented with slideshows on a tablet, a PC and even a projector, but when it comes to revisiting memories, nothing compares to the humble old photo album.

A friend confesses that she likes the slight discoloration as the prints age for they make the captured moment even more special, a little bit of past happiness crystallised out of time.

Physical photo albums have fallen so out of favour that they are chic and shockingly expensive nowadays, reminding me of my pre-teen years. Back then, it was film that was shockingly expensive, so much so that wasting a single shot was wanton profligacy and resulted in the offender being banned from use of the camera for as long as my parents remembered the offence (about a day).

Today, an album-maker has perhaps a thousand photographs per event, but the physical limits of the 40- or 100-page photo album returns us to the era when one book of photos covered either years in a life or one life-changing event. Curating my photos for physical display forces me to consider what I really want to remember from that time, at this time, and why.

It reminds me that I don't need a second-by-second or minute-by-minute documentation of my life and loved ones. Five hundred photographs of a family holiday saved on a memory card mean less to me than a single photograph of my parents standing in a forest of pine trees.

My mind locks onto the image, unreeling the scent of the fresh air, the feel of the wind, the joy of that first visit to the hills of Kodaikanal in India, the local schoolgirl who came up to practise her halting English on us. Try compressing all that into even the most sophisticated smartphone or computer. No amount of technology can substitute the heart.

akshitan@sph.com.sg