Photo Detective: Keepsakes or Clutter?

Preserving and Sharing Family Photographs

Now that winter is here, it’s an ideal time to think about that mysterious shoebox (or pile) of family photographs and documents that you’ve been wondering what to do with. Before you decide to declutter or downsize, please take the time to explore the contents of your shoebox to see what you actually have. There may be family photographs which bring back vivid memories or provide dates and details to enhance your family stories. Photo Detective will help you with ideas and guides for preserving and sharing your most precious photographs, but first you need to investigate what you have and consider what to keep, pass onto someone else, copy or discard. It’s your choice.

Shoebox full of photos and papers
A shoebox overflowing with family photos and documents*

When space is a premium we are forced to make some hard decisions. Best selling books on Decluttering like Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art Of Discarding: How to Get Rid of Clutter and Find Joy or Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing have sold millions of copies but consider what your collection means to you and your family before you permanently rearrange or remove anything. Marie Kondo does recommend doing something with your old photographs NOW so they can be shared and enjoyed, sooner rather than later (or never). However, I would not follow Kondo’s suggestion to separate photographs from their albums or context, for now, as you may lose some valuable information or the ‘feel’ of an album or collection as the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. Why not search for clues and consider these questions first.

Step 1: What’s In The Box?

Where did the shoebox come from?

Do the photographs and papers seem to be from the same or different times?

Are there any labels or notes?

Is it the same or different people and places?

Is there any obvious themes, order or dates?

Are there postcards or letters with dates, names and addresses?

Do you know who, when or where any of them are?

Is there any kind of obvious order?

Who else might know something?

Take the time to think about things before you make any irreversible decisions.

When Clutter is Good News

 It’s incredible what people throw away. Unfortunately, photographs are often discarded after a death in the family and are lost forever, but not always. Here is a marvellous newspaper article about an English garbage worker who rescued 5000 World War One photographs  and other paraphernalia from the garbage over 36 years, mostly after the veterans had died. Similarly, a treasure trove of 3000 World War One photographs were found in an old farmhouse in France, in 2010, and these are now part of the Australian War Memorial’s Thuillier’s Collection. Finally, there is the recent exhibition of the ‘Lost Photographs of Marilyn Monroe’ which were found in a forgotten shoebox.

We might not be famous but our photographs and memories are still priceless. If you have any other marvellous stories of unearthing photographic treasures please leave a comment and share your story or pictures with us.

*Also, while the photo above is from the State Library of Western Australia‘s website they are unable to trace any copyright owner. If you recognise the photo or have any knowledge of its copyright, please contact me so any necessary changes can be made.

2 thoughts on “Photo Detective: Keepsakes or Clutter?

  1. Excellent, I wish u well as I know the value of family photos especially when a loved one can be brought back to your heart so vividly. Just the sight can remind a person of the voice, smell & touch of that special person no longer present in our life.

    1. Thanks for your encouraging comments Paulette. Our families are at the heart of our lives & gives them dimension, even if this means elation or pain at times. They also teach us much about ourselves, both the good and the not so good. As you say photos enable us to re establish these connections or remind us who or what we hold most dear. All the best.ET

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