Pics or It Didn’t Happen: On Losing Travel Photos

Camera on desk credit Markus Spiske via Pixabay

There are plenty of #firstworldproblems travellers encounter, but one of the most frustrating once you’ve returned from your trip is the case of the missing photos. Our digital dependency means we upload these images, maybe back them up to an external device or cloud, then return to them at will, rarely holding a physical copy.

Such was the case with my New York city break last year: four nights of exploring one of my all-time favourite cities, with my parents and former NY resident sister. My photos, spread across two cameras and a smartphone (yes, I’m that gadget-dependent), captured the key moments from our visit: taking in the disturbing but unmissable 9/11 Museum; stumbling upon the Brooklyn Historical Society on Pierrepont Street, and its heart-breaking slavery exhibition. Browsing cute little shops like The Fountain Pen Hospital and Fishs Eddy [sic], and trying out cool restaurants, like Bareburger; walking the High Line and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Girl walks past Little Italy restaurant and bar, Spring, in New York, with blue tile front
Wandering with my sister, near Little Italy, post-pasta binge.

The Saga of Backing Up Travel Photos

Here’s the boring bit: I duly uploaded about half the photos from memory cards to my iPad (synced across to my iPhone via the iCloud) to have duplicates in case my main camera was lost or stolen. Secondly, I uploaded everything separately to my laptop when we returned to the UK. Edited and pruned, they looked fine, but printing them wasn’t really an option; I do this every few years, but I can never settle on an affordable amount of prints. I want more than my wallet allows, so I rarely bother. Besides, I always back up laptop photos to my hard drive – or do I?

Fast-forward to this year, when my laptop had fundamental issues. I was told to back up all my data before HP whisked it away for repairs, but was led to believe the data probably wouldn’t be wiped anyway. However, the laptop required a total factory reset, and I was told the problem may well reoccur in another six months (wow, I can’t wait to deal with that). I transferred my files to the newly blank computer, knowing I’d saved tens of thousands of important images I might need – like those from New York – on the hard drive. Everything seemed to be there.

It wasn’t until months later when, wanting to refer to some specific images from the trip, I realised they were missing. Where was the High Line or the Immigration Museum? Where were the literary plaques I’d painstakingly photographed one by one? (Yes, I am a right laugh to go on holiday with). Where were the places we’d grabbed brunch, and glimpses of our hotel? Somehow my usually decent filing system had gone awry, and half an album of photos was missing. Crucially, the ones not uploaded to my iPad or synced to my iCloud devices… hence the #firstworldproblems.

To put this into perspective, I also forgot to transfer any of my music and I am too poor for iTunes, but I can use Spotify for free, or rely on my MP3 player. No major drama – the music will always be out there somewhere. But these holiday photos are another matter: they’re totally personal, made by me. I can’t buy them on Amazon.

Man and women stand looking out over old wall in the walled city of Mdina, Malta
A sneaky photo of my dad, mum and sister in Malta, 2015.

When You’re the Only One Taking Travel Photos

There’s a downside to being known as the one member of the family who is always taking photos: nobody else bothers to document a trip, save the odd token snap for Twitter. This means, aside from landscapes and cityscapes aplenty, my photos contain those rare family group shots. As a rule, we Allens are not a posing tribe. We usually stand behind the camera, not in front of it, and none of us would be described as classically photogenic. Having photos of my mum, dad and sister is quite special, either when they’re forced to pose due to my nagging, or when I catch them off-guard and get some natural shots.

Besides this, part of my depressed brain says, ‘But what if they die in a horrific accident and you have to comb through photos of them to put in a funeral order of service? What if they go missing one summer wearing the same clothes, and you need a photo for an eye-witness appeal? What if, on their tragic death or disappearance, you make an album to celebrate their life, and the only recent photo you can use is them pulling a stupid expression at Christmas? QUICK, TAKE A FLATTERING PHOTO FOR POSTERITY!’

When I explained the missing travel photos saga, my dad asked, “But presumably other people have photos of the High Line you can use? Ones from the internet?”

Yes, the High Line is well-documented, but there are copyright issues with photos, and often the free-to-use ones aren’t what I want for a feature or blog post. If I wanted to add them to my personal collection, well, crucially, they don’t contain members of my family, or the unusual mime artist we saw that day, or the way the sunlight caught the leaves at a particular moment. They are someone else’s memories, from someone else’s vantage point, and – as much as I sound like a toddler throwing a tantrum – I just want my photos back.

Dress with 'lucky' label attached to bodice, by Dior AW2005, in peach fabric on mannequin
The ‘lucky’ dress I spotted at the Metropolitan Museum’s Manus x Machina exhibition.

Travel Photography as an Escape

New York was also a joyous time of labyrinthitis – an inner ear problem, often triggered by long-haul flights, that leaves me feeling as though I’m falling, moving or just dizzy, even when I’m still. It typically affects me for about 7-10 days at a time. To calm myself down, and have a little breather, I would often pause and take travel photos; therefore, those images became my core documentation of the trip. I was often too tired and drugged up at night to write heavy notes about the day’s events, figuring I could refer to the photos for the hour-by-hour minutiae encountered, and the names of restaurants or streets that appealed, across the 15,000-20,000 steps we clocked up daily.

I even went up the bloody Top of the Rock, despite my symptoms starting to materialise at the time. I felt confused and exhausted (more #firstworldproblems). The queues were huge and the computerised ticket system broke down, along with the air con in the ticketing hall. My dad accidentally left his penknife in his man-bag and it was (rightly) confiscated by security. The lift was, of course, horrendous. The view from the Rock was good, but I wasn’t in the mood, and thought it was overpriced. I took stealth photos of people brandishing ridiculous selfie sticks on the viewing platforms.

I now have no images to prove that very expensive and disorientating experience happened. Of course, it did happen, but I may twist it in my memory over time, in the way that we gradually become unreliable witnesses to the past. Photos help to jog our memory and get us back to the real narrative. Though we take a lot of them, thanks to the capacity of today’s digital devices, we keep a lot of them, too. We create a weird digital legacy to be shared at the touch of a button. Some of that legacy is about the bad, frustrating or weird experiences, not the picture-perfect ones, but it’s still valid.

Vintage and retro black cameras in a cluster with background focus.
You’ve got all the gadgets, but can you back up your photos? Credit: Unsplash.

The Moral of the Story: Back Up Your Travel Photos to the Nth Degree

  • Always back up your travel photos… but check you have everything you need, too. Don’t just skim through the files – properly look. Roughly how many should be in your album?
  • Transfer photos from your camera to your iPad using a special adaptor (placing your SD memory card in the top – you used to be able to connect the camera directly, but most modern cameras aren’t compatible with Apple’s power supply issues, hence the new card-only option). Just don’t select ‘delete on camera after uploading’ on the iPad screen.
  • Get an external hard drive. Mine, the Transcend Storejet, is 1TB and military grade, so it will survive being dropped from a great height. I don’t think my hard drive was the problem with the missing images – it was me failing to check they’d all transferred. The Guardian has a useful article on photo storage options.
  • Consider using digital storage like iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, or similar. I pay a very reasonable 79p a month for extra iCloud capacity.
  • Email your most important travel photos as attachments from your computer or device (compressing them into a zip file if necessary), and don’t delete the email. Open and download them as required, to multiple devices.
  • Start using a dedicated photo site like Flickr, where your photos can be private or public. I’m pretty lax at using Flickr, because it takes a long time to tag and caption your images, but I should have just uploaded them to have a private copy, then tagged and published them when I had time.
  • Should you decide to print them now or later, upload photos to TruPrint, giving you a back-up that can easily be converted to prints or photo items in the future (such as cushions, canvases or mugs). I did this in 2015, including creating a batch of Instagram prints that looked pretty cool on matte paper, but I’ve let it slide since then. Time to rediscover this option.

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