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Magic Eraser for Google Photos: Why you shouldn't use it to remove strangers from your family photos.

Apr 30, 2024

I first heard about Magic Eraser—the feature within Google Photos that lets you crop out errant strangers, stray trash cans, or anything else in a frame that makes it look less than perfect—when my husband, an Android user, texted me a beloved image of our daughter that he’d just edited. In the photo, J. is emerging from an amusement park ride at the local pumpkin festival, jazzed out of her ever-loving mind. In the new version, the ash-blond stranger wearing suede boots who got off the ride just behind J., and who had been gracing our fridge since we printed the photo out and put it up a couple years ago, was gone.

Once I knew Magic Eraser existed, I started seeing the concept mentioned everywhere. A pediatrician I follow on Instagram shared a few family Disney pics, with and without the strangers who were walking between their group and Cinderella’s Castle at the time of the snap. I also found out that Reddit has long operated a board where you can post pics and ask people to erase strangers, or any other unwanted objects, using Photoshop, for a small fee. Magic Eraser was just automating this function.

My most Andy Rooney opinion, at least since the latest flare-up of the sleepover debate (I’m pro), is that we should not erase strangers from our family pictures. My original nuclear family’s albums, which my mother maintained in those classic 1980s scrapbooks with self-adhesive pages, annotating each image in her distinctive handwriting, are absolutely, positively chock-full of randos. When I was in elementary school, I loved to look at these pictures, hauling out two albums at a time and paging through them at our kitchen table. It was a time when I was becoming acutely aware of the difference between our family and others—not in a bad way, but in an interested one. We lived in a small town, and our family vacations gave us information about how things were elsewhere. I wasn’t going to pass up analyzing those clues.

As a parent, I have read advice about the good effects that looking at family photos can have on kids. (It’s sometimes given by the kinds of people who want to sell you family portraits). The advice goes like this: Keep family photos around so that your child knows they are a part of a bigger story, and they will develop a sense of belonging, become more psychologically stable, and generally be happier. That was probably one thing that was happening to me during my album-looking days. But the strangers? The strangers taught me something different.

Here we are, wearing the incandescent faces of children on vacation. I like remembering how much those yearly beach vacations solidified our shared family tastes: hours of bodysurfing; cantaloupe brought in a cooler to blunt the salt in your mouth at rest breaks. Magic Eraser could isolate our little group for me, putting us on a private beach, alone—voilà! Instant Kennedys.

But I also like how full of people this beach is. Seeing everyone else camped out in the background reminds me of all the things I observed as a child, attending this crowded beach. It was so different from the small, beloved private club on a lake’s edge that we went to every summer day back home in New Hampshire. The little boy at the left looks like he’s about to throw a ball to someone, and the gesture vividly reminds me of how my parents bristled when people threw stuff into our space, or played their music too loud; nobody back home would ever. I was figuring out whether I minded, honing that feeling of differentiation, and sameness.

Part of the fun of this ride, the Wave Swinger, and really any theme park attraction, is screaming really loud with strangers. It’s like a kiddie preview of what it’s like to go to a rock show, get a little bent, and belt out song lyrics with other concertgoers who have no shame, either. You need the strangers in this picture to remember that revelation: Other adults are not just teachers and my parents’ friends. They have this kind of fun, too.

I especially like the guy in the Lakers attire at the far right, because it reminds me how everyone at our school back in New Hampshire—Celtics country, at the height of the rivalry—loved to hate the Lakers, and to pick on anyone who wore gold-and-purple to class. My family didn’t have a television, wasn’t into sports, and didn’t care. That Lakers guy, as I recall, sure could scream!

My brother, it seems, was done with photos. This stranger girl takes up more of the image than my mom intended, but in those times of limited film, you didn’t just get rid of a picture because a random child with tan legs and a tan face, wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt like the ones I remember my brother refusing to put on during that trip (he was a shorts boy for a little while there), happened to be in the frame. And now, we have her glance back at my brother—a gesture of childish affinity, at the annoyance of being constantly photographed? maybe!—in our album! Where is she now? What is life?

We drove to Colorado to see my grandparents twice in my elementary years—highly memorable trips. The first time, we stopped in a tiny town in Kansas where my grandmother’s family was from. Her father, who had been the editor of the local newspaper and ran a print shop besides, died there in 1969.

I don’t know what its population was when we were there, but in 2020, Kensington had 399 souls. My dad drove us past our relatives’ old house, and introduced himself to several locals, one of whom—a stranger, not pictured—was a man in a big, shiny belt buckle. Unbelievably, to me, as I had not thought anyone would know us, this stranger said to my dad: “Oh! You’re Walt Boyd’s family.” He toured us around the small-town bank, in and out of the vault, then took us to this ice cream parlor, where my memory is that he introduced us to the lady behind the counter and bought us ice cream. Would I remember this man, or this day, as well as I do without the picture of this stranger? Maybe!

People’s relationship to photographs, and to strangers, is not the same as it was when I was young. Because we have smartphones, and thousands of jpegs taken at each individual event to pick from, why wouldn’t we pick the frames with no randos in them for our albums, before even considering Magic Eraser? I’ll tell you why: Because that blond lady in the suede ankle boots is there to remind me that J. was once a 4-year-old who made friends with strangers easily, and loved crowded festivals, way more than I ever have. The boots lady, in my opinion, stays in the picture.