In September 2008 an unusual car with tall metal bars strapped to its roof drove past my grandad’s flat – I doubt very much he knew what it was. He paid no attention to the car and its looming apparatus, but continued in large, confident strides up the driveway, his puffs of white hair striking against a dark green hedge.
I know this not because he told me, not because this day was memorable in any other way. I know this because it is immortalised on Google Maps’ Street View feature: if you search my grandparents’ old address and click to view the accompanying image, he’s there, face blurred by Google but proud chest totally recognisable. “That’s how he’ll always be in my memory – striding out to Asda,” my sister says.
My dziadzio, as he was known to us, passed away in 2010, but his image was captured two years earlier by a Google Street View car, one of a number of vehicles that drive around photographing the world for the company. Introduced in 2007, Street View is designed to show interactive panoramas of locations across the globe. In 2017, Google announced it had photographed more than ten million miles of 83 countries: you can use the function to explore the Great Pyramid of Giza, take a virtual stroll up Mount Everest, or – more commonly – check out the outside of an office building when you have a job interview and you’re nervous about getting lost.
Finding my dziadzio on Google Maps was a wonderful thing – the link got sent round to family members by my excited cousin, who made the discovery a few years ago. Although Google updated photos of the location in 2009, 2016 and 2018, my dziadzio is still visible via the timeline feature at the top left of the screen.
I doubt my dziadzio – who was 88 when he passed and had lived a noteworthy and then ordinary life: a prisoner of war in Siberia; a soldier at Monte Cassino; a grandad watching the Polish TV channel, Polonia, in his Bradford flat – knew what the internet was. But still, he is preserved on it.
I am far from the only person in the world to experience the strange blessing of a relative immortalised on Google Maps. On the website Reddit, a forum called “Last Images” is home to 280,000 subscribers who share the last photos ever taken of their loved ones. Over the years, numerous people have made the same discovery as my family; technology has captured grandads with neon green gardening gloves, grandmas on porches, aunties staring in bemusement at the passing Google car.
Ana Lopes, a 34-year-old call centre operator from Lisbon, Portugal, found her aunt on Google Maps around a year ago. In the image, her aunt stands in her doorway staring directly at the camera – her dark wood front door open behind her, the striking blue and white features of her home captured in full glory. “The picture is marked as March 2010 and my aunt passed on 11 May 2010 at 86 from natural causes. So this is definitely the last picture of her,” Lopes says.
Lopes stumbled upon the image when she was bored and looking up familiar locations on Google Maps. She describes the discovery as “a really pleasant surprise” and says that because her family rarely took photos, she looks at this one instead from time to time. To many, it might seem an unremarkable image, but it captures part of her aunt’s personality.
Whenever she heard a car in the street, she would always go to her door to see who was passing by, because her village was so small. “I’m assuming the Google car was slow and weird – I wonder what she thought of it,” Lopes says.
Kimball Yang is a 38-year-old doorman from New York City who discovered a photo of his dad on Google Maps around five years ago. The photo was taken months before his father passed away from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Yang first saw the picture when his father was still alive so found it “kind of silly” – but since his father’s passing, he thinks of the image differently.
“I looked at the photo again after his passing and it feels like he can see me looking at him,” Yang says. “He was very camera shy so he didn’t like to take photos,” he explains. So Street View, Yang thinks, is “wonderful” for preserving his father’s image.
Of course it is mildly dystopian that Google takes pictures of us without consent, even if the company blurs faces to protect people’s privacy. Thankfully, you can report an image on Google Maps and get it removed (simply “visit” the location on Maps and click “report a problem”) but this hardly helps if you’re unaware your photograph is out there. Street View is a strange bit of tech, equal parts creepy and – in circumstances like mine, Lopes’s and Yang’s – unexpectedly heartwarming.
On the Reddit forum, people are even happy to see photos of their old pets lazing in the garden or perched on a kitchen windowsill. The feature is, obviously, also home to the living: by strange coincidence, the New Statesman’s chief sub-editor, Pippa Bailey, also has a grandfather on Google Maps, “just pootling in the garden”. Bailey says it’s nice to think that when her grandparents are gone, in the image the house will “forever be theirs”, no matter if someone new lives there.
“I love it because it encapsulates him so well, just getting on with the gardening in his fleece and cap, completely oblivious,” Bailey says. “It’s a sort of diligent and uncomplicated image.”
I couldn’t agree more with her description: the same is true of the photo of my dziadzio, remarkably straightforward and spectacularly ordinary. I like to imagine he was popping to the shop to buy us a carton of Mango Rubicon juice, as he so often did. Wherever he was going, it’s nice to be able to see him now that he’s gone.