In the past year, I have spent a lot of time sorting through old photographs.
First, my mother passed away in June of 2021. Along with my sister, husband, and two of my children we sorted through boxes of old photos searching for our favorites to create a tribute to our mother/grandmother.
Then, after finishing the mammoth task of writing a book with my husband, I decided to begin tackling a project I have been procrastinating for years (if not decades) - scrapbooking all the loose photos from the pre-digital camera days. This includes all of the photos I inherited from my mother. As part of this process, I have also been removing photos from old magnetic albums and putting them in scrapbooks.
Most recently, my stepfather passed away. Once again, my sister and I pulled out the big box of photos and started searching for our favorites of Dad. Throughout this ongoing process of photo sorting, I have been getting rid of pictures, but it wasn't until my sister and I were working on the big box that a sort of methodology formed in my brain.
It quickly became apparent that some of the photos were not worth keeping, and I realized that we needed to agree on the criteria we would use for determining which photos to keep and which ones to toss out. Otherwise, we would constantly be asking one another "What about this one?"
Fortunately, we had no trouble agreeing on the types of photos we were comfortable throwing away. Our categories were as follows:
Poor Quality Images:
The quality of a photograph can be affected by a number of factors to include lighting, focus, exposure, background/surroundings, and more. There is no reason to hold onto poor quality images. This is especially true in today's world when it's easy to delete a bad photo or retake an image, but even older photos are of no value if you cannot see the subject clearly.
Images can be unrecognizable for a number of reasons. For one thing, poor quality images can render their subjects unrecognizable. In this case, however, I am mostly referring to subjects that you do not recognize. These could be people, animals, or places.
My mom was an animal lover. She took almost as many photos of her various pets over the years as she did her children and grandchildren. In some cases, neither my sister nor I recognized a particular animal; thus, we felt no remorse in getting rid of its photos.
With regard to people, we decided we didn't care to keep photos of friends of our parents from the 1960's whom we did not recognize or know. We did, however, hang onto old family photos (even if we couldn't identify all of the individuals in the picture) in the hopes that someone else in the extended family might be able to identify the unknown person or persons.
We also tossed out pictures of places we've never been, didn't recognize, or couldn't remember. One of the problems that arises from shoving all your loose photos together in one big box is that they get mixed up. Some things, when taken out of context, become unrecognizable and lose all meaning.
Lastly, we got rid of images of things we didn't recognize like a series of photos of an anniversary cake for someone named Bill and his wife (whose name was indecipherable in the images). We further tossed pictures of things we simply didn't care about. These included pictures of such things as a vase of flowers or Christmas decorations or a craft project.
One thing I have discovered as I have started scrapbooking is that I often have more photos of an event than I really want or need. Often there are several that are extremely close in terms of subject matter and detail, having been taken a few seconds apart. While this is sometimes desirable for documenting the progression of an event, it is often just redundant. In our case, we opted to choose our favorite images and get rid of the ones we didn't like as well.
It's also true that back in the days of printing photos from negatives, people often chose to print duplicates with the intent of sharing. In some cases, we each opted to keep a copy of an image, but for the most part, one copy was enough.
I mentioned that my mother loved photographing her animals. The result was an inordinate number of images of the same cat. It would seem that Scrappy the Calico was a particular favorite of Mom's as we have at least 50 photos of her lazing about when three to five especially cute images are more than enough to create a scrapbook page to remember her by.
Other People's Images:
My mother was a high school secretary for 23 years. Later, she worked in an elementary school cafeteria during her semi-retirement. As such, she had hordes of photos of other people's children - kids she worked with at the high school who gave her a wallet sized copy of their annual school photo or senior picture. These were nice for my mom when she was working, but had little, if any, meaning for my sister and I, so we got rid of most of them. The exceptions were extended family members and close friends of the family.
While we all love getting pictures of our friends' family at Christmas time or other times of celebration, how much do we actually love going back and looking at those photos of our college roommate's kids twenty years later? In our case, the answer was not much, so we tossed a lot of photos of other people's families during our sorting process.
Toss the Guilt Out with the Photo
My mother seems to have been of the mindset "If you take a photo, you must keep the photo." I confess that even I have been guilty of this misconception, at least I was in high school. Thankfully, I am over it. Looking back, I have no trouble getting rid of images that no longer have any meaning. Indeed, some were not good images to begin with (for reasons identified above).
Having eliminated the excess photos from my mother's (and my own) photo collection, I know that looking through them in the future will be more enjoyable because all that remains are images that have meaning and are easy to interpret. No more asking "What's that?" or "Who's that?" or "Why do we have so many pictures of that cat?"
5/19/2022 08:33:02 pm
Great tips! It’s definitely easy to feel guilty getting rid of old pictures, so I think it’s important to give yourself permission to toss (or delete) the o Ed that aren’t necessary. I need to take my own advice and clean out my camera roll!
5/20/2022 10:10:54 am
Cleaning out (and organizing) the digital photos on my phone is on my to do list as well. It's a good task to do little by little when you find yourself sitting around waiting, and you have a few minutes to kill. As a bonus, it's way more productive than scrolling through social media or playing a game!
5/23/2022 08:44:57 am
We just had Cathi Nelson of The Photo Mangers as a guest speaker at our NAPO-CT meeting. You two are definitely on the same page! What I love about all of this advice is that it reminds us of why we keep photos in the first place: to trigger a memory and make connections. If we don't recognize anything in the photo (for all those reasons), then it isn't serving its purpose and can go. Great tips!
5/23/2022 08:52:10 am
Thank you, Seana! It's good to know that I'm in such good company! I have found that it is actually more enjoyable to sort through the photos (or flip through photo books) when all the photos are "keepers" and the indecipherable ones have been removed.
5/23/2022 09:40:40 am
Thanks for sharing your process. It's excellent you created decluttering criteria when going through photos. I did this over the years when my parents passed away. Recently, my mother-in-law passed away, and I had to revisit my process and modify it for my husband. His system was a lot more rigid than mine, and I could get rid of many photos or scan them if he wanted them. It is a process that can be overwhelming, so I find taking time to rest after a few hours helped me a lot.
5/24/2022 06:27:09 am
It’s true that taking a break is an important part of the process. As with any organizing or decluttering project, sorting through photos can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Because of the sentimental nature of pictures, they can be particularly challenging to deal with.
5/24/2022 01:38:35 am
Wise advice and a great way to get everyone started on the road to photo serenity.
5/24/2022 06:40:47 am
I think you may be on to something with regard to the difficulties of discarding printed photos. For some, at least, it may be the cost factor. But I also think there is just a reality factor. Digital photos are just images on a screen, whereas printed photos are tangible. Even though we may have far more than we need of a particular event, or there may be some than are very similar, it seems wrong to just toss out a perfectly good photo. That’s one reason we focused on the not so good ones.
5/24/2022 07:40:58 am
This is a fabulous post, Sheri. I love the criteria you and your sister came up with for tossing photos. So smart!
5/24/2022 09:58:08 am
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