Friday, May 29, 2015

The Death of Memory

A few days after photographing the annual Procession of Saints in South Philly on May 17, 2015, I found myself at Mount Moriah Cemetery. In fact, I often find myself there, for one reason or another. I was probably making some photographs of “grave” importance (I can hear you laughing all the way over here). My friend Rob wanted to see the results of the latest deforestation project coordinated by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Being involved in a Friends’ group in Scotland, I can’t help but think he’s a tad jealous of the ability of the Friends of Mount Moriah, who can just chainsaw down whole swaths of invasive trees, freeing the imprisoned grave markers and other monuments, without having to observe government restrictions on bio-diverse habitats.

Recently deforested area of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

Anyway, as we were walking, I was taking photos with my Olympus Pen E-P1 digital camera. After turning it on and off a few times over the course of a half hour, I was greeted with the image you see in the display below. The message ! Card Error can strike fear into the heart of the staunchest photographer. It of course implies a problem with the replaceable memory card. There is no card access, either to create and store a new image nor to view any old ones.

What was on the card? Well, about fifty images from the Procession of Saints and a few dozen other things, nothing of great importance. Would they be lost? Possibly. Was I extremely upset? Not so much. After having experienced loss of cameras, images, and memory cards over the past dozen digital years, I’ve learned to be rather paranoid about such things, and therefore, somewhat prepared. If it happens to you, accept the possibility that some of your work may just disappear into the ether. However, all may not be lost.

Don’t believe everything you think!
There were a few things I had going on in my head at the time the warning popped up on my display. First and foremost, I had just read an article in the April 2015 issue of Rangefinder magazine called “Second Chances – With the right software, images from a dead memory card can frequently be brought back to life.

April 2015 issue of Rangefinder
When I read John Rettie’s article, I took it to heart. Basically, he discusses software programs you can use to retrieve, usually successfully, images from a corrupted or damaged memory card. I tried to find an online link to the article, but it seems you need a subscription to view it. There are a few free download services through which you can access the entire April 2015 issue, however (see links below). I will briefly cover some of Rettie's major points.

1.    While services exist that can attempt to retrieve your data for you (e.g. “DriveSavers” at, this can be very expensive ($500-- $1,000 depending on the number of images recovered).
2.       Most downloadable data recovery programs have a free trial scan, at which point you pay for the software if the scan determines that the data can be retrieved.
3.       Below is a list of software you can use to help retrieve your lost images:

“Picture Rescue 2” available for $20 from

“Sandisk Rescuepro” available for $39.99 at

“Photorecovery” available for $40 at

“Lexar Image Rescue 5” available for $34 at

Rettie’s Rangefinder article states that the Lexar program “ships with all Professional-series memory cards from Lexar.” This reminded me that I recently purchased a memory card (I apologize – I don’t remember the brand) that advertised a cloud backup service of some sort. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I suppose a wifi-enabled camera can probably be programmed to save your images to the cloud in addition to the memory card. Great idea.

Will you ever need a data retrieval software program?
Perhaps not. Maybe you’ll just accidentally drop your memory card in the weeds and it will be gone forever. But I would suggest that you do make some attempt to reduce your potential risk of data loss.

How can you minimize your risk?
After all, putting all your hopes in a software program to retrieve your images may not be the wisest thing to do. I routinely use a few backup methods, simply because I am paranoid about loss. And that is because I have lost images to corrupt memory cards, damaged memory cards, and lost memory cards! As Charles Manson once said, “Total paranoia is total awareness.

About a year ago, my laptop disappeared an entire 4 Gigabyte memory card filled with, oh, let’s say about four hundred images. Away they went, like so many saplings cut down in their prime. I had not read the Rangefinder article at that time, so I assumed the images were just gone. I reformatted the card and reused it, which, as the article points out, is not the way to retrieve your images. My images may all have been still on the card, albeit inaccessible in the normal fashion. I probably sealed their doom by reformatting the card.

The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief
Did I lose a lot of precious images on that 4 Gig card? Probably. I tried not to think about the spilled milk. In an unprecedented short period of about two hours, I went through the five steps of grieving and loss (identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”). I experienced denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. As a result, I have since made a habit of doing the following:

1.  Shoot with two cameras. I did this at the Procession of Saints, so if the card giving me the “Card Error” was kaput, I had some backup images on another camera.
2.  Don’t use a large capacity memory card. The more space you have, the more tempting it is to just use it until it fills up. If something happens to a full 16 Gig card, you’ve lost way more data than if you had lost a full 4 Gig card.
3.  As soon as you do a shoot, download or copy your primo images onto a hard drive or laptop. I do this with all the images I make of my children and my cemetery work.

So what happened in my recent “Card Error” situation?
I had a few things I wanted to try before downloading any software tools to use to retrieve the inaccessible JPEGs. Prayer, of course, was one of them. (I thought of comedian George Carlin's line: "Saint Anthony, PLEASE help me find my keys! God, PLEASE tell Saint Anthony to help me find my keys!")

I popped the SD card out of my Olympus Pen E-P1(a micro four-thirds format camera) and into my Canon G11 DPS camera to see if the Canon could read the card (I call digital point-and-shoots “DPS” cameras in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient). Lo and behold, the Canon read the card! Saints preserve us! Next step was to connect the card to my laptop via a card reader and upload the images to my hard drive. After doing so, I reformatted the Kodak 4 Gig SD card and reused it in the Olympus. I have had no problem with it since.

The Resurrection
So my memory card was granted a new lease on life, much like how (the formerly abandoned) Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia has these days. Here is a photo (below)  retrieved from my funky memory card - it shows the trees that had been cut from around a crypt which was being crowded out by the invasive species. In fact, all the images of the saints and the cemetery you see in this article are from that naughty SD card. (By the way, you can check the progress of restoration efforts here on the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page.)

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

Lessons learned?
My paranoid, risk-averse tendencies regarding the safeguarding of my images will likely continue. Also, since this is the only “Card Error” I have ever experienced and this happened to me on the only Kodak brand memory card I have ever used, I won’t buy Kodak memory cards anymore.

References and Further Reading:
Rangefinder magazine website
Download the April 2015 issue of Rangefinder magazine on either of these site: