Digital Requiem

This summer I followed a journey taken by my favourite painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio was a gifted artist and one of the leading proponents of the Baroque, but he could also start a fight in an empty room. In 1608 he fled Rome after knifing a man to death in a brawl and headed south, first to Naples, then Sicily and Malta. He managed to escape the law but couldn't shake off his own demons, painting some of his best pieces while on the run but ultimately losing his life in another knife fight when he was just 38.

Caravaggio's work is well preserved and accessible to all. Visitors to Rome view 'The Calling of St. Matthew' in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi by feeding coins into a meter which switches on the lights. An important picture was stolen from a church in Palermo in 1969 and has never been recovered. Fortunately we have photos of this 'Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco'. Scholars believe they have identified a record of his birth and Caravaggio's name crops up in various items of sixteenth century correspondence.

So much of Caravaggio's work and details of his extraordinary life story have been kept safe through four hundred tumultuous years for us to enjoy and ponder. Not the digital version, the real thing.

Tragedy caught up with me in Sicily on August 13th. A colleague called with the awful news that my friend Simone Camilli was one of five people killed when a bomb disposal team mishandled unexploded ammunition in Gaza. Simone was a video journalist with the Associated Press and had gone with the sappers hoping to document their work. A routine kind of story to cover after a cease fire. He was 35, married and with a young daughter.

Simone had been working full-time in the media since graduating from university in 2005. A totally digital journalist, he started out just as videotape was disappearing and being replaced by memory cards. He was amazed when I explained to him my first job involved 16 millimeter film, black bags for loading camera magazines and that editors used a sharp blade and strong adhesive, not mouse clicks.

Simone's career started out in Rome but he was drawn to the Middle East. He was a fast learner and quick to grasp new technologies and work methods. While he hurried between assignments in Jerusalem, Tiblisi, Paris and elsewhere he became my 'go-to guy' whenever I was flummoxed by the quirks of an editing program or lost in a camera setup menu. Unlike me, Simone knew his bits from his bytes.

So naturally enough most if not all of Simone's legacy is digital. In different areas of the web there are copious amounts of his edited and raw video, cached streams of live transmissions and more. Some of this is plainly AP copyright and resides on their intranet behind a firewall. Some versions will have been distributed to AP subscribers and now sit on hundreds of file servers around the globe.

Simone also experimented and created his own projects which he uploaded to sites like Vimeo and YouTube. He helped run a visual arts workshop in Jerusalem's Old City which no doubt generated even more content now languishing somewhere in cyber space.

He took a part-time position producing short films for a United Nations agency assisting farmers in developing countries. Amazingly I found two of these on the in-flight entertainment system on a recent flight across the Atlantic.

The camera he was holding at the moment of his death was damaged beyond repair but I don't know if anyone has yet managed to salvage data from the memory cards. He had a high capacity hard drive which might be in Beirut. I have some of his work from 2012 on a memory stick.

And all this is just the tip of the digital iceberg. For even if Simone's profession hadn't caused him to create a galactic-sized chunk of data each working day, like most of us he generated a constant stream of instant messages, emails, postings and tweets. On July 7th we messaged each other for an hour online, I was in Rio de Janeiro and Simone was in Jerusalem. I complained about my hangover and he told me how he was looking forward to a family vacation. Twelve days later we picked up the thread, by this time Simone was in Irbil, Iraq hoping to film some Indian nurses being freed by militants and asking me for career advice. On August 3rd I was in Sicily and Simone was finally enjoying his vacation in Tuscany.

Me: "What's the Italian name for hydrogen peroxide?"

Simone: "Perossido di idrogeno"

Me: "Grazie"

Simone: "Where are you?"

Me: "Palermo. Hot as hell."

This was our final exchange, which I can reproduce here accurately because it's all there in the 'Message' section of my Facebook. Simone's own Facebook page is still active more than one month after his death and friends continue to update with photos and other posts. "I miss you bro much," is the latest.

In April 2002 I delivered a graveside eulogy to my friend Benny who had succumbed to cancer. A few months later a mutual acquaintance asked me if I thought enough time had passed for it to be okay to delete Benny's name and number from his cell phone. Neither of us knew what might be proper etiquette. After a few moments solemn contemplation he scrolled through the menu and keyed 'Delete'. "That's it then," he announced, "now he's really gone." Erasing digits from a screen somehow seemed more final than seeing Benny's name on a headstone.

Looking back, the dilemma over Benny's phone entry feels like it happened at the midpoint of the present Information Age. The last twelve years of innovation, broadband and upgrades mean traces of Simone Camilli's online life are all pervasive. Thanks to social networks and the untethering of devices to float in The Cloud, few of us actually understand where our correspondence, personal data and those embarrassing photos are stored. How should we plan to preserve those parts we would like one day to be our digital legacy? I know where to find the portrait of my grandfather dressed for his wedding but struggle to locate an attached file I received last week.

I want to draw together the disparate strands of Simone's huge body of work so that one day his daughter will have a better understanding of who he was. But I have no idea where to begin or how best to safeguard the resulting collection.

The highlight of my summers' journey was to stand in a vestibule of the cathedral in Valletta, which not only houses the master's only signed work, but is where Caravaggio was denounced and then defrocked as an initiate to the Order of The Knights of Malta after more drinking and brawling. His presence in the stuffy room that afternoon was palpable and made me shiver. It's hard to imagine the powers that control the Internet doing as good a job of preserving our stuff, and Simone Camilli's, as generations of careful custodians have done with canvas and parchment.

A small sample of Simone Camilli's work, a collaboration with photographer-musician Dan Balilty, can be viewed here.