People, Places, and Things: The Camera Roll Experiment

An influencer, a social media manager, and two travel writers get on a ferry.

Although this opening sentence might sound like it’s leading up to a punchline, it’s actually not a joke. It’s a real-life scenario that I experienced a little less than a year ago. (For reference, I was one of the travel writers.) I was exploring Toronto with three other people, and we had decided to take a ferry from the city to one of the outlying islands in Lake Ontario. We were on a tight schedule, so we knew that we wouldn’t have time to disembark from the ferry — we just wanted to take a quick photo of the Toronto skyline from the water.

We snapped the shot we needed on the way out, then settled on a bench inside the ferry, out of the brisk April wind. When the boat arrived at Centre Island, all of our fellow passengers exited, but we stayed in place. As the flood of passersby slowed to a trickle, I noticed that I could snap a pretty photo of the ferry’s interior hallway as soon as everyone left the frame.

THINGS: ferry hallway; April 13, 2019. Photo by Whitney Brown.

The instant that my view was clear, I stood up and raised my phone to capture the scene. Beside me, the influencer, the social media manager, and the other travel writer lifted their DSLRs and took their own photos of the exact same hallway.

None of us had even mentioned that we wanted that photo, but each of us decided to take it. What drew us to the shot — shared generational tastes? A heightened sense of wonder brought on by our afternoon of exploration? An eye for all things aesthetically pleasing, groomed by our long-term use of Instagram?

I’m not sure, but I suspect that all of those factors played a part.

The incident made me wonder what distinguished me from the people beside me. Most obviously, I was the only woman and the only American in the group. To my knowledge, I was also the only person there with a passion for archaeology and floral design, the only person in that group who rereads the Harry Potter series every December. I’d hazard a guess that some of those characteristics would be apparent from my camera roll, even to a complete stranger.

If you were to compare my camera roll to the others’ SD cards, you would find that hallway shot in all four places. And you would probably see similar photos from the day we shared in Toronto. But I’d imagine that you would also learn a bit about each of us from the other photos we had taken and stored.

In that light, a camera roll analysis seems to be in order.

The method

Pull out your phone and open your camera roll. We’re going to analyze our photos and reach a few conclusions about them.

For my purposes, I’m going to categorize my photos by subject: people (like my husband, my family, my friends, and me), places (like the Toronto skyline, my favorite parks in Paris, cool spots in San Francisco, and locations around my hometown), and things (like food I’ve eaten, flowers I’ve admired, rallies I’ve joined, and sunsets I’ve liked). A photo can only appear in one category, so if an image contains people and/or places and/or things, then I’ll put it in the category that best matches its primary subject. For what it’s worth, I predict that my camera roll will contain far more shots of people and places than of things.

THINGS: a watercolor I painted; July 15, 2017. Photo by Whitney Brown.

You can analyze your own photos differently if you prefer (for example, you could categorize them as indoor/outdoor, study how they change after a major life event, track how and when various people appear and disappear, whatever you want). But however you decide to do it, don’t forget to write down a guess or two about what your camera roll will contain before you begin.

Of course, we’ll have to make some judgment calls along the way. For instance, I’ll have to deliberate whether a beach in Oregon counts as a place or a thing. (Ultimately, I would say that it’s more of a place.) And I’ll also need to determine whether a dog is closer to a person or a thing. (After giving it some thought, I’ve decided to put my dog images in my people category.) I’ll try to be consistent, but I should note that this experiment was never meant to be a peer-reviewed scientific study. It’s just a fun way to reveal insights into my own life for my own benefit.

I’m going to analyze my entire camera roll, which dates back to June 2013 but also contains a few childhood photos taken as long ago as 1998. If you have too many photos on your phone to get away with a comprehensive analysis, you can study your camera roll — or SD card, or image folder, or whatever — from the last 30 days (or from a period of your life that you find particularly significant).

I’m also going to exclude videos, gifs, memes, and most screenshots from my count. But if you’d like to include those in your own analysis, feel free to do so.

Ready to get started? Don’t begin until you’ve defined some clear parameters for your analysis, and come back here when you’ve finished tallying your results. Or keep reading. Either way is fine with me.

The experiment

Note: I wrote the introduction and first section of this article before calculating my results. I wrote this section, and both of the sections that follow it, after calculating my results.

It took me more than an hour to go through my entire camera roll. My phone displays my photos in rows of three, so I found that the easiest way to categorize my images was by scrolling one row at a time, then tallying the results from that row in a notebook.

By the end of the experiment, my hand was cramping, and I was ready to be done, but I had already learned a lot about myself.

The results

I analyzed 1,628 photos, which included:

  • 702 photos of people
  • 653 photos of places
  • 273 photos of things

I also jotted down the names of the individuals who appeared in my people photos. (I excluded the people whom I didn’t know or whose names I had forgotten.) That’s how I know that there were 58 women, 39 men, four children, and two dogs in my photos, giving me a grand total of 103 individuals.

PEOPLE: my husband and father-in-law; August 3, 2019. Photo by Whitney Brown.

As I tracked the data, I couldn’t help but think of the major trends and developments that occurred at each stage of my life. I also recalled the backstories behind many of the photos — this was when we tried to recreate the photo of Talmage eating ice cream on the pier; this was after I got tired of wearing a disposable mask around Beijing; this was when we forgot to reserve a campground and had to sleep on Jake’s grandparents’ property.

I made a few interesting (but completely logical) connections, like the fact that I have fewer photos of people from times when I felt lonely, and the fact that I took more photos of places that I loved than places that didn’t really speak to me. I even noticed that the number of people in my photos dropped sharply after my husband and I started dating (oops).

It’s also pretty clear that I have more photos from recent times than I do from more distant years. The explanation? I think it’s because I hold on to photos for a while before deleting duplicate shots or unremarkable images.

Someday I might go back and redo this exercise, gathering different data points or looking for new insights. For now, I’m happy with the results that I found on my phone, the insights that had been gathering digital dust for years.

The conclusion

Looking at my old photos in a new way was a very positive experience. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — in fact, if you’re the type of person who really likes taking personality tests, I think you would love this exercise.

No, I don’t have photos of every single day or story or moment of my life. I don’t have a picture from the night that my roommates and I drove up the canyon and ate takeout, or the time that my college friends and I swam with mermaids in a public pool. I don’t have any photos that show me splashing in the ocean, even though that’s a big part of my beach-going, water-loving identity. And I’m fine with that. Although photos can be an invaluable memory aid, some memories are bigger, sparklier, quieter, or deeper than a photo can show. And that’s okay.

PLACES: Point Vicente, California; January 31, 2020. Photo by Whitney Brown.

Don’t get me wrong, though — I do know that old photos have their value. For instance, scrolling through the images made me think about big-picture topics. As I looked back on the past few years, I wasn’t at all fixated on my appearance, but I did remember the person I was at the time each photo was taken. I saw my mistakes and weaknesses, the parts of my personality that aren’t perfect — not in an aggressive, self-destructive manner, but in a constructive, thoughtful way. It made me want to work on a few things, but it also helped me recognize the progress I have already made.

The experience made me feel overwhelming gratitude for my husband, fondness for my friends and family, and affection for the little girl I nannied last year. Those aren’t new emotions, but it was very validating to experience a massive rush of positive feelings at one time.

I loved taking an afternoon to bask in my own good sentiments, to dive headfirst into a pool of nostalgia.

I know that I could have spent the time learning about something much more important, much more universal, than my own camera roll. But if learning about myself helps me recenter, then that means that I didn’t waste my time. Hopefully, it means that I’ll be better prepared to stand up for the things that matter most to me. Hopefully, it means that I’ll recommit to my most important relationships and to myself.

There’s so much value in spending a little time the way that I did as I scrolled through my camera roll.

To anyone who wants to replicate this experiment, substituting my criteria and tests for things that are more personally significant, I wish you happiness, insight, and…

…good luck.

Whitney Brown is a travel writer who believes in integrating climate and environmental themes into her work. She also loves archaeology and floral design.

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