Photo Finish: The difficulty of shedding old pics, slides & other visual reminders of our lives

If you are of a certain age, before photographic or movie images could be digitized, you remember using real film in our cameras, which produced slick or matte prints or slides kept in sleeves and boxes.

Once the technology surfaced, we video recorded our events. Now, we all have a surfeit of these visual reminders of our lives well lived. These images are the most personal and precious of items for they freeze in time activities we did and people who may no longer be alive.

However, as we get older and accumulate too much stuff, many of us know it’s time to downsize or as we say in our new book, Not Dead Yet: Reboot Your Life after 50, it's time to tidy up our lives. We don’t want to leave the piles, the things and the messes for our children or siblings to clean up after we’re no longer here. It’s much better if we maintain control of what we keep, give away and to whom.

Getting rid of the overflow of our visual images is like tossing away a vital part of ourselves. We both remember digging into our photo, slide and video piles. Going through them is like entering a time machine and can be a highly emotional endeavor. We laughed, we cried, we conjured up stories in our heads of when and where we were, and we tried hard to remember who the people were as we looked at images of our younger selves and others. We often thought, “I can’t believe I looked like that. Where did the time go?” Or “OMG, who took that photo? Why would I pose like that. How embarrassing.”

It was extremely difficult for Margaret to pare down the images captured on film and video tapes of her family for there had been so many deaths, including the loss of her husband of 42 years. It was physically painful. How could she get rid of images she could never recoup? Here they were on film but there were so many.

She went through and organized them, then pitched duplicates. However, she couldn’t part with many. As a result, when she moved to New York City, she transported more than eight boxes of photos, a couple boxes of slides in carousels and video tapes, as well as a stack of photo albums, many of which she still has sitting in a storage space. She gave several boxes of her family’s photos to her younger sister who wants to set a date when all four siblings are in New York City to go through them while sipping wine and munching on nibbles.

To go through Barbara’s hundreds of slides, she bought online a small lightbox,  a special gadget with a light for under $30, enabling her to view each slide individually. It took hours. In doing so, she was transported back to another time and place. She called Margaret to say, “You should see the slide of me on a beach when I was three,” or "the photo of my mother at age 10 in her tutu and toe shoes.” It conjured up old feelings of joy and sadness.

There were so many photos of her parents’ many vacations, so many of her at camp and at her childhood birthday parties when her friends all dressed up in their most festive party dresses. But most important to her are photos of three of her grandparents, several aunts and uncles and her favorite first cousin recently deceased. Barbara researched ways to digitize them and print some of the most special ones to share with family and friends with a company, Process One, in Kansas City, Mo., which she found online. She liked their process and price for the work. She kept many of the slides, sent about 52 to be printed, sent some slides to friends whose parents were captured in photos, but also discarded dozens of slides that had less meaning since she knew she wasn’t interested in viewing them again. Process One told her to expect the process to take several months.

We found that yes it is difficult to pitch images. But if you waiver and are stuck or find the task too overwhelming, there are now online sites and professional photo organizers who will help you see your images through a different lens or an objective eye. A treasure to you might be seen by the professional as a bad photo or one that is a duplicate of others. However, it can also be uncomfortable to bring in a stranger to view your most intimate, maybe even embarrassing, and personal family moments. And how are they supposed to know what means something to you? That’s why, we’ve read, most photo organizers prefer to have the owner sitting by their side as they shuffle through the slides and photos like a deck of cards. Obviously, this cannot be done with an online service. What to discard becomes the operative question you need to ask yourself.

In a recent New Yorker magazine piece, “How a Personal-Photo Curator Separates the Is-This-a-Rash Selfies from the Keepers,” (March 29, 2021), writer Lauren Collins reports that personal photo organizing has become an emerging business; people who spend their days swiping and saving in the name of posterity are also known as family-photo curators.

Collins writes, “’Photo managers can help organize and curate collections, digitize prints, suggest backup systems, re-house in archival storage, and help you tell your story through photo book design, videos, websites, and countless other ways,’ reads the Web site of the Photo Managers (formerly the Association of Personal Photo Curators), est. 2009. A family of four generates 5,000 photos a year. Isabelle Dervaux, a professional photo organizer, makes it manageable: ‘I’m looking for what Roland Barthes called a ‘punctum’—something in a picture that touches the viewer, even if it’s indescribable.’”

Dervaux charges $125 an hour and works with about 40 clients a year. If you are uncomfortable having a stranger rifle through your images or cannot afford to hire one, you can do it yourself or use one of the online services. Or consider asking a friend to help. Here’s more help.  

  1. DYI? Approach it one task at a time. Break it down so you don’t feel overwhelmed. One box at a time, one album at a time, one category at a time. And if the photos are in albums, take them out and go through them this way. It’s easier to see duplicates, sort of like the difference between reading something on a screen versus a hard copy. You will see it in a different light.
  2. Decide on a system. Margaret took large manilla envelopes and named each one for a child, sibling, niece or nephew, grandparents, in-laws, events and so forth…. Everyone has a different idea how they’d like them organized. Barbara is putting the printed images in photo albums that she’s placed on her bookshelf for now and will carefully sort through when she’s got big blocks of time. She wants to share the albums with family when they have time.
  3. Mark the photos on the back. Identify the photos and add the date and place if you can remember. Do the same with the slides—you can write on the sleevesVideo tapes have a sticker you can adhere to the spine where you can write this information. Margaret’s husband titled all the videos he took.
  4. Set aside a huge chunk of time. Doing this is a time suck. Make it fun. Ask your family members to help and play old music, serve good wine and plenty of snacks. It’s a great bonding exercise and a wonderful way to reminisce.
  5. Decide if you’re going to keep the photos and slides or digitize them if space is a problem. This is an expensive proposition unless you learn how to do it yourself and that is time consuming and expensive. Your time is money. Margaret’s younger son’s partner said she would digitize all their video tapes. There are online services such as Memorybox, ScanCafe or Legacybox. According to the Legacybox site, this is how it works. “Send your Legacybox kit, filled with old home movies and pictures. They will digitize 'your moments' onto a thumb drive, the Digital Download or DVD.”
  6. If you want to do it yourself, there are photographic, slide and video scanners and copiers and digital converters that come in a range of prices. It takes skills and time to figure out how to work these gadgets and then even more time to do the actual work.
  7. Tip that we read online for slides at toptenreviews.com: “If you own a slide projector, you might digitize your slides by taking photographs of the projected images.Use a matte white backdrop and a high-resolution camera, and make sure you stand directly in front of the projection of the slide (but behind the projector) and keep your camera level.”

If you’re stuck inside because it’s terrible weather outdoors or you’re simply in a tidy-up-your-life-mood, it might be a propitious time to sort through those old images. As Collins writes in her New Yorker piece quoting Dervaux, “‘You kind of have to do this for your future self.’” And let us add, do it to preserve those precious generational memories for your children and their children.   


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