A couple of things happened to me recently which really highlighted the need for professional photographers to have adequate  back-up and protection strategies – for both their images and their equipment.

The first occurred when the area where I live in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, was hit by a very real bushfire threat. I’ve lived in this particular house for 17 years and there have been a couple of bad ‘bush-fire years’ in that time, but – as seems to be increasingly the case these days – the combination of conditions this time around was considered the most extreme in decades. For the very first time, I was faced with the challenge of deciding what to take if I needed to evacuate in a hurry. It’s not a nice prospect at all.

Like most photographers, I suspect, I’ve got a number of bags packed with various camera systems which could be lobbed straight into the boot of the car. But wait! Unless I’m travelling away from home, I don’t have the battery rechargers stored with the cameras. They’re lined up on a separate desk so I can easily recharge the various different batteries after an outing. Oops, that could have become a big problem. And then there’s so much other stuff that I use across systems – filters, tripods, lighting and stands. Usually it just sits on shelves in the office, ready to be grabbed whenever needed. In the end, it became a case of prioritising because it simply wasn’t possible to take everything… given there were some of the necessities of life to be packed up too.

After whittling down my take-away kits, it was truly sobering to see just how much I’d still lose if the house did go up. Among it would be filing cabinets stuffed with transparencies taken over the last 35 years or so. Some have been scanned, most have not, but it was obviously completely impractical to do anything about them now. I should have thought that out years ago. In fact, the same was true of the shelves laden with DVDs which had been my preferred format for archiving digital image files until switching to compact external hard drives a couple of years ago. Some of the archive folders from the DVDs had been copied to the HDDs, but a lot hadn’t. Yet only the hard drives were a practical proposition in an evacuation situation. Everything else would have to stay.

The truth is that, despite often seeing hapless people going through fires and floods and losing pretty much everything, we never ever think it’s going to happen to us. This very much colours our thinking in regards to protecting the things that are actually vital to our livelihoods. OK, so there’s insurance, but have you checked recently whether you’re fully covered for absolutely everything that you need to use in order to function?

If I’d really thought that my house was going to go up in flames, I’d have rented a big van a few days earlier, put everything in it and moved out. But I didn’t, because the desire to stay and fight overwhelmed any other consideration… and that that would be the best form of protection. I’d have also done a whole lot more about having a properly organised archive, but who really has the time to do all the file copying that’s needed to stay current in terms of the technologies?

I was reminded of this after needing to get some images off a Photo CD. This was Kodak’s short-lived format for storing digital files which was killed off by the DVD. The files are stored in a proprietary format which is virtually no longer supported by anybody. Fortunately, my wife still had a copy of Photoshop 7 on an old laptop so I was able to extract the files and convert them to TIFFs. Apparently Adobe stopped supporting Photo CD after CS2. I’ve got lots of PCDs containing files ironically all scanned from transparencies, and I just hadn’t realised that they were close to becoming little more than drinks coasters. It’ll take time to transfer all of them to something more contemporary, but I now know that it just has to be done.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit slack about all this and there are lots of you out there completely on top of archiving, insurance and emergency action plans.
But if you aren’t then I suggest you do something about it before being faced with the very real likelihood of everything ending in tears. Take it from me, it’s not a nice feeling at all.

So what happened? Thanks to the huge efforts of the NSW Rural Fire Service, disaster was averted, but I think that treating the emergency services as some sort of ‘last resort’ insurance policy is a very risky business indeed.

Paul Burrows