The value of a photo

The digital age has allowed us to document every moment - significant or not - but, with the passage of time, every picture will count

Somewhere on Facebook, there is a picture of me from 1987.

My former English teacher for several years Miss T (now Mrs C) is next to me, beaming with pride, along with my best friend, K, another very good pal, W, and a third classmate, D.

We are looking slightly sheepish in our Catholic High whites and greens and I am clutching a huge wooden shield that was almost the width of my scrawny frame.

Obviously, the four of us had won some kind of competition - perhaps an inter-class debate? Alas, the picture is faded and pinching the screen to zoom in doesn't help one bit (I tried).

The picture of that picture was one of many that were posted by Mrs C on Facebook as she was clearing away her many photo albums from the past.

People forget, in the era of smartphones, that a "photo album" used to be an actual physical item - often a big and thick book that was cloth- or leather-bound and which took up space, but in a very different way.

As Mrs C unearthed one old photo after another in a constant stream of Facebook postings over two weeks, I could not help but get sucked into the exercise - examining every picture from every fresh batch.


That is because - after one was done squealing like a mad person at the random appearance of so-and-so - the photos were a rare visual reminder of what the world looked like back in the 1980s.

Mrs C took photos at every stage of her life - from her days in university to the years she spent teaching, first at Catholic High and then at the Barker Road campus of Anglo-Chinese School.

There are pictures of her with her friends and colleagues at their workplaces, going out after work and on overseas holiday trips together.

As a result, we saw what an office used to look like: wood-panelled walls and notice boards with removable plastic letters spelling out announcements. Airplanes had seats with mini cigarette ashtrays built into armrests, and restaurants and nightclubs installed tacky African sculptures to give off a sophisticated "world vibe" (wait, some still do).

The small car of the day was the Toyota Starlet, which Mrs C used to drive, and the epitome of the high life was the Learjet, which apparently was flown by a former Caucasian pilot boyfriend (itself a high-water mark of sorts at the time).

Best of all was the fashion on display.

We always knew our teachers were hip and young single women who partied even on weekdays at the infamous nightclub Chinoiserie, but the pictures proved once and for all that geometric print, shoulder-padded blouses and billowy pleated pants worn to class could indeed have easily taken them from day to night.

But the photos also made me feel a little sad.

Not for the loss of good times gone by, but for all the opportunities I had to capture them but didn't.

Mrs C's pictures inspired me to go and look for my photos from the past, but I found that I have very few left - especially from the 1990s, when I was in university and when I just started working life as a young adult.

Part of the reason for this was that I had been insecure about my image back then and often hated the way I looked in photographs. So taking pictures with my friends, colleagues or dates would have never been a priority and something I may even have assiduously avoided.

Another reason was that taking pictures in the pre-digital era was actually troublesome and costly. You had to love doing it to make it worthwhile.

After all, you had to buy rolls of film to manually load into a camera. You then had typically just 12, 24 or 36 single shots - and once you pressed the shutter button, the photo taken was final. There was no chance of a do-over.

Then after you had exhausted all the shots and waited for the camera to wind the film back to the start, you sent the rolls to a photo shop, which would process them for a fee.

Express service was expensive, so you would typically wait a week to get your photos - after which you would routinely exclaim with dismay how many shots you wasted with a bad angle, shaky fingers or the obviously wrong choice of a random passer-by who clearly had zero photography skills.

It could cost at least a dollar to develop a single photo, depending on the size of the image and the quality of the film - so people tended to be judicious with their shots.

One also did not always have a camera on hand, so the sense of spontaneity so prized in online photos today was often missing from pictures of the past. People planned in advance whether to take their cameras to certain events and posed woodenly for those expensive and unchangeable shots.

Of course, it goes without saying that photos also couldn't be shared - unless one ordered duplicates.

Digital cameras arrived somewhere in the mid-1990s.

They made the process of snapping photos more instantaneous, but demanded a different type of care to ensure that photos taken persist through time.

That was because digital photos were stored on the cameras themselves or on some sort of memory stick or card.

You could send the memory card to photo shops to get the images printed or later, print them yourself at home with photo printers.

But most people simply downloaded the hundreds or thousands of images - so easily taken and hence less precious - into their computers or hard disks, which they happily discarded without a thought as the relentless consumer electronics upgrade cycle took hold.

This persisted until perhaps the second half of the 2000s, when cameras on mobile phones started to take fairly decent photos, which could eventually be stored online in the "cloud" and displayed and shared efficiently through social media networks.

Today, I think nothing of taking several photos a day on my smartphone and sharing one or two instantly on Instagram or Facebook. People even post pictures that automatically get erased after some time.

I have friends who post pictures every half an hour, and there are few events or gatherings I attend where there are no photos to show for.

Having lived through three different stages of the development of photo-taking since the 1980s, the documentation of my life's journey in pictures is patchy, to say the least.

I have some physical printed pictures of myself in the 1980s and early 1990s, then almost no pictures at all until the start of this decade.

After that, I have a deluge of pictures, more than I can ever review or even remember taking in my lifetime.

As a result, for me and many others in my generation, the value of a photo varies from zero to infinity for me, depending on when it was taken.

I recently re-connected with Mrs C, after she had invited me to give a talk at the school she teaches in. I made sure that we took a photo together.

For I can now juxtapose that with that one single precious photo from 1987 of the two of us standing next to each other and marvel at the passage of time - something I sadly cannot do with many of the wonderful people I have met in my life.

For those of you who were lucky enough to be born in today's digital age, my advice is snap away. It may be difficult to fathom today the value of any single picture - but in time you will.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'The value of a photo'. Print Edition | Subscribe