Why You Shouldn't Get Rid of Old Photos
Family pictures are potent storehouses of long-forgotten memories and a key resource for future generations. Here's how to mine their power.
I have a couple of family photo albums and a few framed shots sprinkled around my apartment, but the other day I found myself wanting to look at others. I was struck by a wave of nostalgia so powerful that it overcame the sense of dread I feel every time I have to head down to my building’s basement and dig through the plastic bins that hold my old images.
Before moving into my apartment five years ago, I had to assume a ruthless "chuck it all" mentality to scale down my worldly goods. I donated and sold hundreds of books, clothing items, linens, furniture and dishes. Yet, I couldn’t let go of a single photo.
And so, I gave the precious storage cubby my building allots each tenant over to snapshots — nine large bins with thousands of unsorted images taken by my sons’ father, a photographer, and me, an avid amateur snapper. As I look back, it seems that very little of our lives went undocumented. Those prints were fun to look at when we first got them home, but they didn’t get seen much after that. The last time I looked at any was in 2008, while packing up for the move.
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I know I’m not alone in sensing some measure of absurdity in the situation. A friend who recently helped her parents empty their home told me their photos seem completely irrelevant. “I can’t see any reason to hang on to them,” she said. “I don’t know most of the people in them and they definitely won’t mean anything to my children. On the other hand, getting rid of them feels irreverent, like I’m dishonoring my parents’ lives.”
A few months ago, my mom finally decided to clear out her own mother’s enormous stash of old black-and-white shots — “dozens of trash bags full,” she told me. My grandmother died in 1992 and my mom had held onto her photos ever since. Even though I had seen only a few of them over the years, hearing the news that the visual record of my grandmother’s life had been relegated to the trash heap made me cringe.
I don’t want to move my photos again, but I also know I won’t be able to bring myself to throw them out. To me, they’re not merely dust-gathering relics. These mini-documents convey details of a personal history that I want my sons to know about. The photos can perhaps stir their imaginations in ways that neither they nor I can fathom.
When they look at the images they may discover an untold story worth knowing. The landscapes and people might be unrecognizable — there may be many degrees of separation between them and my sons. But since each photo maps the experience of a family member or someone that person knew, my children are in some sense connected to them.
A Moving Experience
A few days ago, I landed on someone who appreciates the storytelling aspect of an old photo. Her name is Cari Vander Yacht and she’s an Amsterdam-based art director who is originally from Portland, Ore. A few years ago, she became interested in other people’s long-forgotten photos and started using her skills to turn them into GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) — image files that contain multiple frames and look as if they are moving.
Vander Yacht works with images that are around 50 years old. “They’re lovely little artifacts," she told me. "You can pick one up and see a story unfold, even if you’re just making it up in your head. I picked those that made me see a funny story.”
She animated the pictures to share the tales she was seeing and to give people a window into her mind. “It was nice to give the images a new life,” she said. You can't help but feel a little sad about a box full of discarded photographs. She said her mom took the shot of the kid on the bike —Vander Yacht's uncle.
How Other Young People Feel
In each case, Vander Yacht’s animated images bring a story to the surface — one that she says none of those pictured could have ever imagined as the end game of the photos.
After looking at these GIFs, I started thinking about the kinds of tales photos could tell if given the chance. I spent some time searching Internet sites where Millennials and Gen Xers hang out to see how they feel about old pictures.
In a thread on Yelp titled “Old Family Photos … what do I do with them?” I spotted the following comment: “Old photos are like old tax returns, they should be destroyed before they get someone in trouble.” But another poster said, “My mom saw a bunch of old photos at that antique store on S. Congress when she was here and she told me that if I dumped all her old photos in an antique store for strangers to rummage through, she would haunt me all my life.”
My "investigations" led me to believe that most people want to save their old photos but need easy solutions for doing so as well as ideas for creative end uses.
Help Is Available
I doubt I’ll ever spend the time required to thoughtfully sort through and narrow down my batches of images. And I suspect many others feel the same way. Fortunately, there are scanning services, like ScanCafe and ScanMyPhotos, that spare you the effort.
These companies will scan your images in bulk (you can mail them in prepaid boxes) and then create a digital copy of them on compact discs. In this 2009 Los Angeles Times article, Mitch Goldstone, president of ScanMyPhotos, described the astonishing size of the typical family "archive": “The average household has 5,000 photographs. We are talking about so many photos, spanning generations, that need to be digitized so you can share them, as well as safely preserve the memories on your computer.”
Another way to approach the task is to hire a personal photo organizer who can cull and take care of scanning, making albums or other print products, like a photo book or calendar. You can find one through the Appo (the Association of Personal Photo Organizers) website. Members of Appo use “images, words and creatively designed photo books, scrapbooks and more” to bring “cherished memories back into clients’ lives.” The New York Times mentioned the organization in a March article in the context of operations that “have arisen during the last two decades to help people preserve and shape their legacy.” Or, put another way, achieve “virtual immortality.”
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The Older Generation Can Benefit, Too
In her recent post on Maria Shriver’s blog, Paula Spencer Scott, a senior editor at Caring.com discusses another way to put old photos to use. Writing about ways to preserve the memories of loved ones with memory loss, she suggests launching "a preservation project."
"You know you've thought about it," she wrote, "organizing those shoeboxes of yellowed Polaroids, slide carousels, fragile black-and-white studio portraits, maybe even some ancient glass negatives tucked away in the attic. Tackling the project with your loved one can be a pleasant way to spend time together while allowing you to put names to faces and places that you don't already know. Get the images digitized, along with the notes from your conversations.”
Another strategy, Scott said, is to create a memory book. "A less ambitious memory project is to organize photos and memorabilia into a single scrapbook or 'life book,'" she noted. "Highlight the people, places, and events that have been central to the person's life."
Given the many good reasons to save old photos and many ways to mine their storytelling power, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about going down into that dungeon of a basement.