“Shit.” I didn’t say it so much as whisper it, breathe it. And even that was only after a long silence—a full minute, probably—from the moment I pressed the key on my keyboard. That was the travel time needed for my brain to go from confusion through denial en route to awful, queasy realization: I’d just deleted all of my files.
Not literally all of them, but the most important ones. I’m in the habit of backing up my digital documents to an external hard drive, but I’d recently gotten a new computer and had been putting off backing it up. In the meantime, I’d put all files that had no backup into one folder for safekeeping.
This was the folder I had deleted.
There were many things inside, but nothing more irreplaceable than my photo collection. Moments with family, old relationships or trips abroad, all my memorable experiences of more than a decade, every image from my adult life—gone.
Computers are annoyingly literal, doing only what you tell them, not what you meant to tell them. A typo on the Linux command line had been dutifully carried out by my computer, which now sat patiently awaiting my next request. There was no trash can, no recycling bin to undo the damage. Nerds who use Linux and identify as “power users” don’t need recycle bins. The ball of nausea in my gut said otherwise.
But if one risk of nerdiness is overconfidence, it also has benefits. Once I’d recovered from the shock—and poured a stiff whisky for grieving purposes—I began thinking about how I could bring my photos back from the dead. When you delete files, even permanently, they aren’t really gone. Your operating system simply marks that part of the disk as free space. As soon as you write to the disk, there’s a chance you’re overwriting those deleted files. But until then, it might be possible to claw them back from the ether.
I found a command-line recovery program and ran it with low hopes. When it finished—after two and a half days—I was left with elation, dread, and a digital mess. It had recovered thousands of files, but they sat randomized inside hundreds of folders, the file names lost and replaced with arbitrary sequences of letters and numbers. My carefully organized files had been thrown into a mixer and dumped out in meaningless piles.
I had to try to put it back together. First I sorted the files into folders by type: mp3, jpeg, and so on. The folder of photos was my most precious one, but mixed up along with the keepsakes were less valuable pictures: ones I’d taken early in my career as a sports reporter, archival research for two books I’d written. There were countless thumbnails—tiny, low-resolution preview images—and other junk. I began filtering out the chaff from the grain, forced, in the process, to look at every single image.
I was enthralled. It was like pulling all your boxes out of the closet and dumping your photographs on the floor to sift through. There were photos that I hadn’t seen in years: a picture from my time in Saudi Arabia was followed by a short sequence of family occasions, then by two trips to India. A photograph of my late Opa’s final fishing trip made me unexpectedly melancholy. With many images, the happiness I recalled feeling at the moment of their creation now gave way to feelings of loss: dead family, dead friends, dead relationships.
I have two significant exes, which is to say I’ve had two significant romantic relationships. And here they both were, not separated by huge chasms of time, geography and circumstance as they are in my head, but by mere pixels, a digital flattening—or is it a curving?—of spacetime. A photographic wormhole.
And there I was with each of them, very different versions of me: one baby-faced in my early twenties, the other moustachioed, with salt-and-pepper hair, in my early thirties. Who were these two men, at once familiar and so strangely distant? I tried to reconcile the answers with my recollection of who they imagined themselves to be, in the frozen moment of these snapshots.
This startling, non-linear slideshow made me see my personal evolution anew, the recurring themes and patterns of my past fifteen years. I saw commonalities from my past lives that I never would have recognized without such a strange, disjointed tour—recalling an incident from one period of my life, and then one from another, and noticing for the first time that there are dots scattered across the arc of my life that I never thought to connect.
It took several days to scroll through twenty thousand images. This was a chore, literally and emotionally, but I happened to be primed for a moment of raw introspection. I was emerging from a difficult year featuring everything from a breakup to my dad’s cancer to the deaths of two family members. I knew I was sensitive to the pull of visual memories, but their power still surprised me.
After all, before this, I’d never spent time looking through my photographs. I’d often found myself thinking of people and events from my past, running the tape back in my mind during wistful or nostalgic moments. Though I could’ve easily flipped through them with a couple clicks on my laptop, I never did.
Yet in the moment when I realized I’d deleted them, I felt a profound sense of loss. This struck me as curious: if I never looked at the photographs, what value did they have to me? What is the function of saving photographs? Is it the act of storing them, meticulously organizing and labelling them, that really matters—not viewing them?
Encountering frames I’d long forgotten or could barely recognize, I couldn’t help but think of my Opa, who spent the last years of his life in the cruel fog of worsening dementia. Though my experience obviously pales in magnitude to his, we’d both lost memories of people, places and events. The photographs were, for me, a roadmap of sorts to recover things my brain no longer kept on file. But did I need them? If I’d lost forever a photo of some people I briefly met and then forgot while travelling a decade ago, would I ever remember them again? Would it matter?
A 2013 study examined the way photographing something affects our memory of it. Participants who photographed objects in a museum, the study found, were less likely to recall what they saw than those who did not take photos. This is called the “directed forgetting effect”—essentially “outsourcing” memories by telling your brain that the camera will take care of remembering this thing. But, intriguingly, when participants were instructed to photograph portions of objects, they were better able to recall, without looking at the photos, the entire artifact. In that case, the mere act of photography, not the photos themselves, helped to create a roadmap.
After the 2013 Alberta floods, while I was working on a book about the disaster, I encountered many survivors whose homes had suffered catastrophic damage. They tended to focus on the loss of keepsakes, including photographs, which were usually stored in the basement. No amount of insurance money could help—the photographs could not be reprinted. Digital photos, on the other hand, can easily be copied and backed up on the smallest of memory chips or uploaded to online servers. But as I was painfully reminded, they are also easier to destroy en masse.
While I managed to recover most of my photos, some were lost forever. Since I’ll never know which ones, though, I can hardly miss them—right?
All memory is tenuous, I’ve decided. Even when we rely on precise records like photographs, it remains fickle, morphing, sharpening and blurring, disappearing entirely. I’ve got backups now on four different hard drives. But even if I can hold on to my photographs, I’ve abandoned the notion of holding on to memories as clear and complete as snapshots. After all, if time changes me, why should my memories remain the same?