Photographs are not Data

Out of Focus Grave Marker
Out of focus grave marker for a grave moved in the 1940s for a reservoir project by TVA

With the advent of modern digital photography, it’s easy to take as many photographs as you want. No film to process means no film buy and no developing to pay for. You can hold as many photographs as your camera’s memory card can hold.

This is good, but it’s also bad. Because now people get sloppy. The camera does all the work so why learn about the fine art of manipulating light? There’s no F-stop to set, auto-focus will do a good job, aperture and shutter are all automated…

Just point and shoot, right?

Recently I was looking at some data for a cemetery on my Forest that has about 300 graves, all moved from places that were going to be either flooded or no longer accessible by the inundation of the new Reservoir that would become Kentucky Lake.

The very first photograph I open (the featured photo in this article), was blurred to the point of being unreadable. As was the second:

Out of Focus Grave Marker
Out of focus grave marker for a grave moved in the 1940s for a reservoir project by TVA

Not to worry. The folder I pulled this from had an 80-page stenographer’s notebook. Surely this would be full of data corresponding to each photograph with the inscriptions, right?

Nope. All it has are about 5 pages with 3-character codes of the individual grave markers that were photographed. It isn’t even a photograph log.

With 80-sheets of paper, using both sides, the person taking the data could easily have written down two markers per page (160 pages available if you count front and back) and still had 5 sheets to spare.

I can’t fault the person who did the recording too much I suppose. I understand the temptation to take a short cut, to save some time and not spend hours doing something you can do in minutes. But the sad truth is the time spent bending over and quickly shooting a digital photograph from a point and shoot camera was largely wasted. They might as well not have done it at all since very few of the images are usable.

The moral is this:

Photographs are not data. They’re expressions of data. The real data is knowledge within the photograph that remains a mystery because the photographer didn’t properly focus the camera and didn’t write down the inscriptions. The person’s name. The cemetery that the remains were moved from. The date the move happened.

Take notes. Don’t rely solely on digital photographs or even digital data to be sufficient.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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