Let’s Stop Trashing Family Photos

A few weeks ago, my daughter went on a photo hunting expedition with me. Rhode Island is full of tiny antique shops tucked into old buildings. On this particular afternoon we were in an old mill that wandered over the landscape. The smell of mold was in the air. I’d found good things here before. I went one way. My daughter, the other.

After a bit, I wondered where she’d gone. I found her standing in front of a bookcase filled with boxes of discarded snapshots. She was holding a 1960’s black and white one. She held it out and showed me. It was of a mother and an infant sitting in a kitchen. There was no name on the back.

“How could someone get rid of a baby picture?” She said with amazement. There were tears in her eyes.

I sighed. “How indeed?”

The fact is pictures are discarded everyday. Old and new ones. Tossed out in the trash. For genealogists, it’s a hard truth to accept. Those photos might be someone’s great grandparents or even your own.

A Culture of Disposability

An attendee at a recent event told me she had around fifteen hundred images. She didn’t know who they were and didn’t know what to do. A woman on the other side of the room raised her hand. I nodded.

“I know what you can do.” She glanced at the woman who owned piles of pictures. “Scan them all and throw out the originals. You’ll have the pictures, but not the mess. You’ll have the scans just in case, you can identify them later.”

I saw heard several people in the room murmur in agreement. No. Just NO is what I was thinking. That one comment could destroy a whole trove of family pictures.

I replied. “While it’s important to scan your pictures as a preservation method, it’s also important to find them a new home.”

There was silence in the room and no nods of acknowledgement.

After the program I approached the first woman and asked her to contact me before she threw them out. I gave her my card. I know that I’ll never hear from her, but it was worth trying.

Unwanted Images

In that old Christmas movie about Rudolph, there is the island of mis-fit toys. At the end they find homes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a place for unwanted images? Imagine a place where they could stay until descendants of the people in the pictures found them. It’s a dream. No such physical place exists.

There are wonderful reunion sites like DeadFred.com. Thousands of people look there every week for their missing family photos.

Here’s what you can do:

· Buy a photo with a name on the back. Research the person and find a descendant using genealogical databases. I’m calling it taking an Orphan Photo Adventure.

· Contact a local historical society to see if they want the image of someone who once lived in their town. A captioned or identified picture will add to their collection.

Send me a copy of the picture and tell me what happens to the picture and the person/place you’ve contacted.

Let’s try to stop this culture of disposability that surrounds old pictures. The scan and toss method destroys the original and all the information that goes with it.