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There’s Only One Way to Fix Your Phone’s Photo Storage Problem

And you can’t find it in an organizational app

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At least once a week, I get the dreaded “storage full” notification on my iPhone. It is always when I am trying to take a picture, and I always opt for the short-term solution: head to the camera gallery and resignedly start deleting.

I have more than 1,000 photos saved on my phone, and I’m completely beholden to them. I’m still holding onto an old iPhone 5s and I keep telling myself I’m going to curate and transfer all the photos I want to keep to a safe space. But I couldn’t bring myself to go through the process with my previous phone, so I panicked and hard-deleted everything before sending it on its way. The anxiety of searching through thousands of photos and selecting which to save was too much, and I knew it would be easier to start clean. Among these photos are duplicates, overexposed images, and even utter garbage — but I hold onto them in case my obsession can manifest as usefulness: What if a friend gets married and needs that photo from that one time for the slideshow? What if a colleague needs a photo from an event for a story and I have one? What if I need directions for a thing and I’m without an internet connection, but the screenshot will save me? What if I want to harass a coworker with a picture of that time I had 40 mosquito bites at once? My hoarding knows no limits, only hypothetical use cases.

Photos are hard to get rid of. That’s because nostalgia is hard to get rid of — it has a tight grip on us in ways that extend beyond the intellectual. It’s like a physical sickness. In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym describes the perception of nostalgia in the 17th century as something to diagnose. It was said to share “symptoms with melancholia and hypochondria,” that it was associated with paranoia (but a “mania of longing”), seeing ghosts, and an almost out-of-body affliction. She writes that one doctor “conceived nostalgia as a shameful disease that revealed a lack of manliness and unprogressive attitudes.” More beautifully — and gently — another doctor called it “hypochondria of the heart.”

But “modern nostalgia,” as Boym writes, “is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return.” That I cannot relive a moment worth capturing is what makes its permanent, “physical” home in my phone so important. The cloud, in this case, is as useless to me as trying to recreate an image in my mind — that means viewing the image with my own eyes and “feeling it” under my hands is accessible only via an app that’s accessible only when there’s reception. I want instant recall, all the time, anywhere, not only when I’ve got a Wi-Fi password or 4G service. Entrusting my catalog to the cloud would be like printing all my photos, pasting them into a book, and then allowing someone else to store it out of my reach. To fix this problem, I continue seeking an answer in other apps.

Many of our photos end up on Facebook or Instagram. For some of the photos in my gallery, this is fine. For others, it is not. These social media environments are spaces for performative nostalgia. In an examination about how digital photography has affected nostalgia, Gil Bartholeyns, a professor in visual culture studies at Charles de Gaulle university, writes: “Nostalgia here is staged but it has no referent. It is not based on anything that came before. Rather, it is generated in a bid to render the present more poignant. … This really is a self-induced nostalgia and even, to some extent, a tautological one.” I don’t need my photos to make me nostalgic for the past until the past is actually the past. The photo app Hipstamatic was an aggressive purveyor of an induced retro feel for digital images, but Instagram and Facebook play that game, too. And it’s fine, and fun, and good, for some photographs. But I’m talking about the rest — the hundreds of photos clogging our phones, unnecessary but unvanquishable.


Instagram and Facebook are not the answer — so what then? Some apps are trying to directly assuage this mania. Flic has a Tinder-like setup that asks you to swipe right or left to keep or ditch a photo — but it relies on my unreliable sense of judgment instead of imposing its own. Photo Cleaner is supposed to identify duplicates and similar photos so you can choose the better of the two — but in my massive and highly duplicated database, it found only two similar images. On average, I take four photos of the same thing, “just in case.” (In case of what? In case the tree moved? In case my sleeping dog looks cuter due to shadow? I don’t know; I don’t have any answers for you.)

Google Photos is the most intelligent photo app yet. It has a Facebook On This Day–like function, surfaces old photos for you to remember, fixes obnoxious problems like sideways photos, and searches based on filters like location, faces, and keywords (e.g., “hiking” or “dog”). But again, unless I entrust the cloud to hold onto my memories, the space issue remains. I’ve tried to curb myself by using 1SE, an app that prompts you to take a one-second video every day and then compiles a slideshow for you; I thought this might help me stop taking five to 10 photos of the Portland International Airport carpet every time I fly home, and yet …

Google Photos
Google Photos

For all their algorithms and features, photo apps are built to facilitate wisely judging and deleting images. But I can’t be trusted. I need something smarter and more judicious to digest the collection, or else it will consume my phone, and probably me.

Tinder recently introduced a Smart Photos feature, which makes suggestions on which photos users should showcase based on the swipes they garner. While I don’t really want swiping to infiltrate my gallery, an algorithm that weeds out the best images and tells me which to ditch would actually be incredibly helpful. Something that, without my biased oversight, could cut clean through my albums, knowingly excising the duplicates, the overexposed, and the too blurry, choosing what should remain.

But that doesn’t exist, so instead I’m stuck downloading more apps to try to neutralize my hoarding, which in turn just take up more space that could have been used for photos.

And if all else fails, I will just take my cues from the youth of the internet: defer to a Snapchat hack. It’s what I should have done in the first place.