Are Your Photos Still in Nasty Shoeboxes?

“You know, once we finish decluttering these rooms, we really should begin to tackle the photos,” suggested my dear client. “Absolutely, let’s take a look at the scope of the project,” I responded eagerly. My client, Wendy (not her real name) led me down to the basement, opened a door to a separate, small room stuffed with tubs, boxes, and crates; each filled with photographs and memorabilia. One hundred years’ worth in fact.

As a professional organizer, my poker face rivals any Texas Hold’em champion.  So, while gasping internally I simply smiled, looked Wendy squarely in the eyes and stated, “This looks like a fun project. I can’t wait to get started next week!”

And so, we began. Every Wednesday afternoon for three hours, like a pair of archeologists, we unearthed decades of memories inherited from various family members.  And as very few photos were dated, we also took on the persona of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as we sleuth-like deciphered the provenance of each photo. “Look, Mary is missing her front teeth. She must be six. That would be 1984.” “Your mom isn’t wearing her wedding ring, that must be before 1938.” Each time we figured out the year felt like a huge victory and propelled us with confidence for the next date challenge. After several sessions of exhausting mental math, we wised up and taped up a cheat sheet timeline of family milestones.

Now, how to organize it all? We could have organized the photos by family member but to simplify the process, we decided to create a temporary chronological filing system. We created a single file for the early decades beginning with 1920 as there were fewer photos.  By 1970 each year had its own file. This sped up the process of sorting the photos.

I love the variety of my job. No two days are ever the same, but I especially looked forward to these weekly sessions as we dived deeper into Wendy’s fascinating and oft painful family history. We sorted through countless photos of family members who perished in concentration camps. I found original Nazi propaganda leaflets written in broken English and dropped over the allied trenches urging the troops to desert. We discovered photos of Wendy’s father with Ingrid Bergman who visited the troops in Germany during WWII.  In later years, we dug up photos of Wendy’s father being honored at the White House and various International museums. I learned that after arriving in 1945 as penniless young immigrant from Europe, he spectacularly made his fortune as an art dealer.

As we pored through thousands of photos, Wendy made the decisions on what to preserve and what to discard and we established several sensible rules:

  1. No photos kept of buildings, tourist sites or scenery without family members present
  2. No blurry photos kept of anything!
  3. No doubles of photos
  4. No multiples of similar photos
  5. No keeping photos of people we don’t recognize
  6. No unflattering photos of anyone

Wendy was more ruthless about discarding old photos than myself. “Who’s going to want this?” She’d ask me. I made a case for future family members who, although not wanting to be inundated with thousands of scanned photos and memorabilia, would probably cherish a sufficient amount to be acquainted with their roots.

“You only have to do this project once,” I’d remind Wendy on days when it seemed the boxes stretched endlessly into the blackhole of a storage room. My other pep talk focused on the amazing gift she was giving her family. The investment of her time and resources would be appreciated for generations to come.

Earlier this month, we finally sorted through the last tub, gave ourselves a huge pat on the back, then handed over one hundred years of photos and memorabilia to be scanned by our professional photo organizer. Once the files are returned to Wendy, she can digitally access them, add her own notations to the photos and preserve her family history with as much detail as she sees fit.

Could Wendy have tackled this project on her own? Yes. Would she? Doubtful. It was a mammoth undertaking. I acted as coach, cheer leader and sincere enthusiastic spectator. Here’s Wendy’s comment on our photo organizing journey,

I have often asked myself why I needed Janet for tackling this project. I finally realized that I wanted to tell the stories behind each photo or article of memorabilia before relegating it the cyber-sphere. Janet was always patient hearing the stories and I’m grateful for her enthusiasm.

If you, too have a shoebox or ten of old photos that are deteriorating, the chances are you are procrastinating because you need your own coach.  With the increased time we are currently spending at home, there has never been a better time to get your photos in order. Your future self and family will thank you.