Most of us have them….boxes and albums (remember them??), containing dozens, maybe hundreds of photographs. Obviously, I’m speaking to a certain age group, who remember taking rolls of film to the photo processing store and waiting, sometimes a week, to get them back (incredible!). Or our parents and grandparents, who often actually had formal, studio portraits taken of themselves and their children. Going through these, it’s impossible to forget that you’re holding something original and irreplaceable, infused with memories of love, loss, regret, joy or pain. Besides the two extremes of keeping them all, or throwing them all away, what are some other options?
When working with my clients in creating more space and harmony in their homes through letting go of possessions, the subject of what to do with original printed photographs almost always comes up. Nothing holds more emotional charge than images of living, or deceased, loved ones, and the experiences we shared. But before we even begin sorting pics into piles, I like to invite an objective process of inquiry and curiosity around why we keep these images, why it’s so hard to let go of them, what we think we’re “keeping”, and what they represent.
Keep or toss?
I recently experienced my own journey back into time, going through 2 boxes of family photos, and lots of old vacation pics as well. I decided to create a sort of emotional criteria, or filter, that would help me either connect or disconnect from the images. As you all know, I’m an advocate for having meaningful relationships with as many things in our homes as possible. Keeping something just because it’s too difficult or effort-full to confront its real value should be avoided.
Fact : a photograph is a symbol of something, an emotional cue card, short-hand to connect us to a person or experience. It’s not the person or experience, or the emotional connections we have with them, which we hold in our hearts and minds as long as we chose.
Here are two photos I decided to keep. The first (above) shows my mother and grandmother as young women, women I never knew. Looking at this image, I see myself at my mother’s age at the time (20’s,) and my grandmother’s age (40’s). I love engaging with them in this picture, before we had any history together, using this photograph to trace back qualities I grew to know in them much later.
The second photo I include for general amusement and to purge any speck of vanity I may have. That’s me at just over 1 year old, in high distress. I don’t believe that my parents’ marriage was ever really a happy one, and about a year after this photograph, they separated. This image is a tangible memory of that time, proof that I probably absorbed the general household upset. I also wonder why they decided to take my photo at this stressful moment? I may find it mildly amusing now, but at the time, why would they?
What I tossed were countless other photos of Easter and Christmas gatherings though the ages, birthday parties, family dinners, etc. For all the people I’ve loved, and lost, I chose one or two images that connect me to a real, visceral feeling of joy, gratitude, or vivid memory. Another way to approach this triage process : which images really distill our connection with this person or experience?
A recent article in The New York Times Magazine illustrates the possible level of conversation we might have with these images, helping us to decide if there’s a meaningful reason to keep them. And as mentioned above, the meaning doesn’t always have to be a positive one. Perhaps a photograph connects us with a pivotal event or experience that was useful in our development. The point is, in deciding, we own the photograph, it doesn’t own us. Check-out the simple exercise at the end of this post, and see if it inspires you into the process.
While I treasure the black and white and color snaps from my childhood, with their vintage charm of a time long ago, millennials are in some ways lucky to have skipped this whole print photo experience; they’re fine with saving everything on their phones or tablets. It gives one immediate gratification, is cost effective, and environmentally savvy. I suggest scanning the photos you decide to keep, forming separate “albums” for each group, which are easily accessible and also make printing a snap. There are also terrific on-line photo album making sources, who will create and print actual books to tell the story of your family or experiences. Check out MyPublisher, and Mixbook. You can even pick specific themes (family, travel, career. etc.). Choosing photos for these books will force you to get real about what images have value, or tell a story, and which do not
Want to get a bit more creative? Collage.com offers tons of decorative (and practical!) ways to keep and enjoy photographs.Cherished images can be transferred to blankets, pillows or shower curtains.
Prefer a more digital solution? Check-out imemories. Send them your print photos and they’ll transfer them to a handy (and extremely space-saving!) compact disc. They’ll do the same with your old vhs tapes and home movies. A cd containing precious visual memories is a terrific, inexpensive gift that can be shared with your entire family or circle of friends. Have fun creating a personalized cd box cover, perhaps a photo collage that you make multiple copies of at home or your local copy shop.
As an alternative to a lonely night alone going through piles of photographs, invite other family members to join you in the sorting scenario, perhaps after you’ve gone through your collection and selected the pics you want to keep. Support them into the same process, establishing a perspective that will help them in their query and decision making. If you need an additional way to make peace with discarding the remaining photos, create a “conversation” with them, giving gratitude for what they represent, and affirming that their value is continuing to reside in your heart.
Letting go of things like photographs helps us to get current with our past, clarify what is most meaningful, and focus our hearts and minds on the true repository of loving memories.
EXERCISE :: Place a large group of photographs into a box, face down. Scramble them a bit so their location has no rhyme or reason. Reach in and select one, and immediately connect with your first emotion or perception. First of all, is it positive? Negative? If it’s neither (neutral), cast it aside. Don’t think about this, don’t try to decide what you feel. Now go on to the next image. After you’ve gone through all of the photos, set the “neutral” pile aside. They have no value and can either be shared with family, or tossed. This should be a brisk, efficient process; you’re not taking a trip down memory lane here, just connecting with your emotional instincts. Now repeat the process with the remaining photographs. It’s likely that your standards for relating to these images will have become more acute, and you’ll be able to eliminate a few more. Finally, how does this feel?