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An Expanded Look at How to Sort Through Your Photos

Here we go again, another post that hits very close to home. How do you manage your photo collection? Old memories and new memories, they all serve to show how remarkable your life is and how blessed you truly are. But over the decades, those memories can build into physical mountains of memories which clutter our homes, attics and garages, how do we make sense of it all?

This week, with so much more spare time and in an effort to help my husband sort out the garage, I started pulling out boxes of old photos. I encountered so many gems that recalled some amazing memories! I had a lot of fun sharing stories with my kids and husband. Photos are a great reminder of how remarkable your life has been-the places you’ve lived, the friendships you’ve made, the hikes and camping trips you’ve been on, the animals you used to own.

Below on the right, you’ll see a see photo of my grandfather, Einar Mollerin, as a child, on a pony. On the left, you’ll see me at around 12 years-old with my horse, Ci. Ci was my best friend for 10 years. I love how photos can draw parallels between generations.

I have so many photos. I fell in love with photography when I took Mrs. Burnside’s photography class at West Valley High School. My parents gave me a Minolta for graduation and I carted that thing with me all around the world. I would buy film in bulk and then, when I would have my film processed, I would get doubles almost every time. All those photos piled up. I literally have three or four giant Rubbermaid tubs of photos and several random boxes of photos all around my house. One of my goals in the weeks ahead is to weed everything down to just one tub. That’s still a lot of photos, but I think I can do it. One reason to weed out my photos is so my kids don’t have to when I’m gone. Here’s my plan:

  1. Go through every box, bin, tub and album. If photos are kept in one of those magnetic, sticky albums, gently remove them and toss the old album. Do the same for other random albums.*
  2. Throw out old negatives**, photo envelopes, duplicate photos, photos of people you don’t know anymore, random landscapes, random animals, random buildings, most sunsets, poor quality and overexposed photos. I also threw out lot of old letters, photos that held bad memories for me and all photos of ex-boyfriends.
  3. If you have photos you don’t want that would be treasured by someone else, consider dropping them in the mail with a nice note.
  4. Sort the photos you do want to keep into eras of your life. My eras are: family history, childhood, high school, college, single years, early marriage, and one for each kid. I also included one for the year I lived in Germany, and another for our mission trips to Albania.
  5. Store these in shoe boxes or gift boxes. I use the ones found at craft stores, but shoe boxes work equally well. Sometimes, when I don’t fill up a box, I combine eras. For example, high school, college and Germany all fit in one box for now.
  6. Label well and stash the shoe boxes in a Rubbermaid tub in a cool, dry place. I can fit six shoe boxes into one large Rubbermaid tub.

*I did keep some well curated albums with photos kept in photo pockets as opposed to gluey “magnetic” pages that damage photos over time.

**It’s very hard to find anyone who can process negatives anymore. If you have the photo, you can easily scan it for a high quality image. I did run across a pack of prints that I knew once contained a negative of a great photo I took of my grandfather. I don’t have that photo anymore, so I rooted out that one negative and put it in an envelope and then stored it in the box for the corresponding era.

A friend read the above and then wrote me with her take on the issue. With permission, I have been able to share and respond to her concerns. Here it is, condensed for brevity and clarity:

Q: I’ve been working on sorting photos for over 3 years now.   The problem is the quantity!  I have photos from my parents, my grandparents, from an aunt and from deceased relatives.  Along the way I put together a photo album for my sister and one each for my kids. I also sent 500 pictures to a service to be put on CD’s. My kids and I each got a CD and the pictures went to the garbage. Now I’m trying to figure out the best way to preserve family history without holding on to every single photo and piece of memorabilia. While piecing together the histories, the emotions overwhelm at times and I have to put everything back in the boxes and shut them away for awhile.   But as I even think about pulling out those memories, I am filled with anxiety and sadness.  It’s so much easier to leave those memories in the dark than confront them.  

My children, at this point in their lives, really aren’t interested in family history.   I can only hope one day they’ll have a desire to better know the roots of family.   But the question remains, how do I finish up so I do not leave this same mess for them that was left for me by my mother? If I can manage to get up the courage, put the emotions on hold, dealing with this business of the past would be a gift to my children so that it’s dealt with for good.  Now to pluck up that courage!   

A: It’s such a challenge, isn’t it? Our family memories, while precious, are also a burden. We feel responsible for maintaining the history and as both mother and daughter, it’s overwhelming because history and memories are still being made-and we are the keepers of those memories as well.!

Here are a few things worth remembering as you work through your photos and documents:

1. Our parents and grandparents did not intend to burden us with this. Even if there was an expectation of guardianship, you can choose to put your own boundaries around the scope of the project. You’re the adult now, and you can make the decision that fits your life and the lives of your family members.

2. We can honor the past without maintaining every single document, film, article, certificate and record that we happen to have. Find the pieces that tell the most story, and work with those items.

3. If your kids don’t want the items later then do you have to keep them now?

4. What is your motivation? If the memories are painful, isn’t it better to let them go?

Part of my motivation for decluttering my photo stash was so my kids wouldn’t have to do it later. They’ll still have to go through some, but with less eye-roll! I’m glad to have time to do this now because in the process, my daughter has taken some interest. She’s asking questions about my grandparents, etc. so it’s enjoyable. And it may mean she can help maintain the memories.

Methods to make your work easier:

1. Listen to music, a podcast or an audiobook while you work through the photos. This may give you a little emotional distance to get the job done.

2. Have a small stack of photos out next time one of your kids visits. Casually point out physical similarities or share a fun story about one of the photos. (Doesn’t Susie look just like Great Aunt Marge? Did I ever tell you how your grandfather was neighbors with Al Capone?)

3. Consider writing memories down or creating a document as you go through and discard photos, ribbons, certificates, and other ephemera. A story may have greater staying power and be more accessible than a big box of photos. A written record may be more useful than actual documents. (Especially if military benefits or, for example, membership into the DAR aren’t at stake.)

4. You can take a photo (ironic!) to maintain the record of certificates and articles. Alternatively, you can send photos, videos and documents to be scanned to digital files.

5. Give away as much as you can. Let someone else manage the burden with you. Maybe invite a family member to help you for a few hours. Make it fun with snacks, brunch or cocktails. With luck, he or she will take some history home.

6. Celebrate your successes! Stand back and marvel at your cleaned up storage areas. Note the amount of garbage that went out the door and notice how neatly your photos fit in your space. Great work! Today, you deserve a gold star.

How about you? Are you taking this remarkable amount of time to work through photos, documents and memories? Do you have questions about the process? Is there any way I can help? Send an email and let me know what your questions are as well as to brag about your process.