There are currently two popular books on the market that help us deal with all the stuff we’ve accumulated, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Put their advice together and you get the title of this piece. They both provide guidance, but it’s their solution to the problem of too many images or piles of unidentified photos that sends me in a tizzy. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Obviously, Margereta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, has never heard of The Photo Detective. There is one sentence in the chapter on photos that made me grit my teeth.
“More work for the shredder.”
She mentioned that in the context of unidentified photos with no one else around to ID them. You get the idea.
I agree with her suggestion to leaving photographs to the end of the process of weeding out your belongings. She understands the power of a photo. They transport us back in time so that we experience those moments again. All that remembering takes time. If you are going to make any progress, save the pictures for last.
However, she’s wrong about shredding. You know that. I do too. Our family trees are wide and filled with people from which we descend. Perhaps like me, you don’t have that many people in your immediate family. It’s possible your relatives aren’t interested in your pictures. Maybe you’re having trouble finding a home for them.
Deliberate destruction is still not the answer.
You can mine the online family trees looking for cousins. Look for trees that overlap with the generation before yours. Those older images in your collection might depict members of those families. Start with Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch.
Over and over I hear the same thing from clients and readers:
“Guess what? I connected with a cousin and they had an identified version of my mystery photo!”
It really does happen. It’s not unusual at all.
If you destroy those pictures you’ll be cutting the connection that exists in those images. Once they are gone. It’s over. It’s a loss that likely can’t be reversed.
I help save pictures from the trash by helping connect family history to the image. An identified photo is likely to be saved. An unnamed one is destined for a different fate. It’s all about studying the clues—format, clothing, props, and adding in family history. The photo story will slowly reveal itself.
Saving the Joy
This brings me to another author, Marie Kondo of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. While Margereta focuses on cleaning up so your descendants won’t have to, Marie’s all about tossing and simplifying your life. She focuses on helping us only keep the things that bring us joy. That old sweater brings up bad memories? Toss it. Those photographs overwhelm you with sheer numbers. Eliminate the stress.
I’m overwhelmed by pictures and it’s likely so are you. They are in boxes, albums, computers, phone, and tablets. We take a LOT of pictures. Even I can feel a mixture of joy and a sense of pressure when I look at them all.
So here are three things you can do:
What to Keep
Save those nineteenth century and early twentieth century heritage pictures. Our ancestors chose photo moments carefully. They went to the studio when they had two valuable commodities: time and money. It cost money to go to a photographer and even in the age of the snapshots, you paid for development of the images.
What to Weed
Take a good look at your pictures from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Delete digital images that are poor quality. Remember the days of double prints? Pass on those duplicates to other family members if they want them or discard the copies. You can scan the originals as a preservation copy.
What to Share
Marguerite has some great ideas on how to give away images such as making albums for your children. I LOVE that suggestion.
I hate to say it, but no one is likely interested in your travel slides and photos. You went on the trip and when you look at those images you relive that vacation. Your family probably didn’t go and so they don’t have the same attachment to them.
Save the ones with people. Those may interest your descendants.
Those images might be a historical time capsule of lost buildings and landscapes. The local historical society might want them.
Dealing with photos isn’t easy. It’s a task we have to tackle before we leave it to our descendants. One box at a time. One digital file in a sitting.
Be prepared for what you’ll feel. Loss. Connection. Joy, not from tossing them, but from reliving those photographic moments.
Want more tips on organizing your photographs take my e-course on Essential Photo Organizing?