What to do with old photos?
For years, I've been keeping hundreds of old snapshots in storage. Enough is enough.
As I’ve written before, I’m not a big fan of the New Year as milestone. But I *do* love to start a new year by casting off things I no longer need. No, no, no, I don’t mean self-doubt / regret / negative thinking / blah blah blah. This is not that kind of blog. Newsletter. Whatever.
I mean, literally, things.
We’re getting ready to do some renovations on our third floor, converting a chunk of our attic into usable, non-storage space. This means that we’re currently in the midst of going through and figuring out what to do with all the crap up there—some of which we’ve been toting around from residence to residence since the early 2000s, because America.
In the process of sorting and chucking, I unearthed four whole shoebox-sized boxes of photos that I hadn’t cracked open in years. Inside them was visual evidence of basically my entire life up until about age 30.
There are literally hundreds of photos. A substantial number of them are duplicates of pictures that I have in albums. (Remember also how it was, like, a standard thing to get doubles of your prints?) The question is: why did I keep them? Was I thinking that perhaps if my albums, kept on the first floor, were destroyed in a flood, at least I’d have backup copies in the attic?
Because what a tragedy it would be if I lost my only copy of this picture:
Why, I might never again be able to see what Stonehenge looks like! Good thing I’ve hung onto this shot from 1992.
Many of the pictures I unearthed, on the other hand, are not copies of pictures in albums. They’re just other photos that I felt it was very important to keep—or that I was just too lazy to throw out along the way, I guess. Like this Pulitzer-Prize-worthy shot of the Space Needle, taken in the summer of ‘89, when half of the automatic lens cover of my sweet Ricoh TF-900 kept getting stuck.
What’s that? You’d like to see ANOTHER semi-obscured shot of the Space Needle that’s been kicking around since the (first) Bush era? Ask and you shall receive.
It’s also really a good thing that I not only took but KEPT nearly a dozen pictures of my hometown’s Memorial Day parade one year. Here’s one of a Brownie Troop (containing nobody I know), just to whet your appetite.
My 13-year-old self took like twenty pictures of that parade. (Which was exactly the same every year, and probably still is.) Was it a Cold War thing? Like, maybe I feared nuclear annhiliation, and I thought that one day a grizzled survivor might happen upon my pictures of the Fairfield Elks Lodge parade float in the rubble and shed a single, radioactive tear of sweet, sweet nostalgia for the white, suburban America that once was.
Maybe. But it doesn’t explain why I then proceeded to KEEP said pictures until I was 47.
There are lots of pictures from my adult life in the boxes, too—my twenties and very early thirties, specifically. Some of them were fun to rediscover. (Hey! I remember that hike! That party! That trip!) Many were dumb. Like: Why did I take so many pictures of various friends and acquaintances smoking pot? (Perhaps because I, too, had been smoking pot?)
And some of them were just…WHY? WHY DID I KEEP THIS PICTURE?
Or these? I mean, I loved my grandmother, may she rest in peace. But I have plenty of good photos of her. So there’s really no good reason for me to have kept not one but both copies of this lousy picture of her with her eyes closed.
There’s also a whole series of pictures of turn-of-the-century electronics—printer, computer(s), TV, DVD/VHS combo player (fancy!)—that I assume I took for insurance purposes, to document what Alastair and I (living together for the first time) owned, in case we got robbed. Very smart, given that we lived in the mean streets of Somerville.
But I have NO excuse for having kept these photos, of things we no longer own, for 20 years. NONE.
Although I do kind of love this one. (Remember the fun clamshell macbooks? Sorry: iBooks. ‘I’ for internet. Because this computer could CONNECT TO THE INTERNET!)
We still have that lamp, actually.
And here is a blurry, over-exposed picture of twentysomething me, pretending a tree is my boyfriend. Or something. Perhaps younger me thought that older me would enjoy seeing this picture someday. “Ah yes,” older me would say. “I remember it well. That time I caressed a nicely lit tree and someone took a bad picture of it. Thank goodness younger me had the foresight to keep this.”
SO many pictures.
But: I’ve decided it’s time to say goodbye to the vast majority of them. I’ll keep the really good ones. (i.e. not the Space Needle ones). And I still have my photo albums, of course. But the rest are going to go to that great big photo album in the sky. By which I mean the trash.
I think the reason that I am able to do this now—as I clearly wasn’t able to do when I was younger—is that my feelings about physical possesssions have changed a lot of late. Over the past two years, both Alastair and I have helped our parents move out of their long-time homes into smaller ones, and have helped sort through and deal with the with the possessions of people who have died. Recently, I helped clean out the apartment of my aunt, who now has to stay in a nursing home.
Seeing so much stuff, including photos, rendered extraneous, burdensome and/or ownerless, and being aware of the fact that, well, you can’t take it with you, I’m finding it easier to shed things I just don’t need.
I don’t need to hold on to every single picture I’ve ever taken in order to hold onto the memories of people I’ve known and the places I’ve been. Clinging to the physical evidence of my existence won’t keep me here forever. Nothing can.
Damn. I went dark there, didn’t I.
So here’s something lighter. If you find yourself going through old photos, I highly recommend the approach I’m taking: I’m turning the photos into experiences. Specifically, I’m snapping pictures of them on my phone and sending those images to the people in them—classmates from high school, college and grad school, old camp friends, former colleagues, relatives. (I’m especially enjoying torturing my brother with old pictures of him with bad 90s haircuts.)
It’s been really fun, and sometimes quite lovely, reconnecting and reminiscing with the people in the photos. I’ve enjoyed spending some quiet, contemplative time with old (but not forgotten) places and experiences—and then letting the pictures of them go, without regret.
So I guess you could say that, in a way, young, photo-hoarding me unwittingly gave middle-aged me a gift. I just wasn’t ready to redeem it until now.
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