Photographing your mementos

When my husband and I were first moving in together, I had an enormous Rubbermaid bin of stuff that I called my “memory chest.” It was full of things that I had collected throughout my life that I wanted to keep but didn’t have a desire to display. If memory serves correctly, the container weighed more than our sofa.

After struggling to carry it up the stairs of our building, my husband set it down in exhaustion and threw the top off the bin to see what was inside. He pulled out an unopened bottle of Bud Light and waved it at me.

Husband: What is this?!
Me: A bottle of Bud Light.
Husband: Yes, I can see that. But what is it really? Why is it in a storage box that weighs a ton?
Me: It has sentimental value.
Husband: Tell me about it. Tell me about this bottle.
Me: I don’t remember, but I think it was funny.
Husband: You don’t remember!?!

He pulled playbills and ticket stubs and dried flowers and coasters and a hand-full of other things out of the box. I’m ashamed to say it, but I only remembered about half of the reasons why the things that he was showing me were in the box. It wasn’t much of a memory chest after all.


Finally, he screamed, “wouldn’t pictures of all of this stuff serve the same purpose as storing it?”

He was right. It wasn’t the physical objects that mattered to me, it was the memories represented by the objects that mattered.

Over the next few weeks, I went through the contents of the bin and took digital photos of the items with my camera. I organized the photos in an iPhoto album and filled in the photo’s Notes field with information about the object’s associated memory. Then, I threw away the object without any guilt or sense of loss. If I want a trip down memory lane, now I just open a file on my computer.

E-mail copies of the photos to yourself at a web-based address (like gmail) or setup a private flickr account or traditionally back-up your hard drive if you’re worried about damage or theft of your computer. Also, you may find items in your memory chest, like I did, that you decide you want to permanently display.

14 Comments for “Photographing your mementos”

  1. posted by Ryan on

    I have something similar to this. Not necessarily a chest, but a small box of different things I’ve been hardpressed to get rid of.

    Notes from relationships, my collection of movie tickets (with the girl’s name I took on the back), small toys from my childhood, post cards from friends and family (some living, some not) and other various objects that are important to me.

    I don’t think I could do the same thing. Sure I might be able to snapshot some of the small toys and scan some of the notes and postcards, but to me, it wouldn’t be the same.

    But then again, I don’t have any unopened Bud Lights in my box. :)

  2. posted by Joe on

    I’m a recently-graduated art student, and I’ve been preparing to do this for my art pieces.

    The big question is what to do with the things I’ve photographed and want to be rid of. I can’t bring myself to simply throw them in the trash – only because they still feel too important to sit in a landfill for eternity, but not important enough to keep.

    The only solution I’ve come up with is burning them. Essentially, cremating my memories. Is this crazy?

  3. posted by Erin on

    Joe — I suggest that you open up an Etsy shop and sell them. Give yourself a time limit (four months, maybe?) for keeping inventory. After that deadline has passed put the items on super clearance prices. If after that they haven’t sold, post the items on craigslist or freecycle or go through with your cremation plan. Someone out there might love to own one of your pieces and display it prominently in their home.

  4. posted by Joe on

    Erin – Etsy is a nice suggestion. I may have a few pieces that other people might be interested in. It might even help validate my fine arts education. ;) Thanks!

  5. posted by Rick on

    Thanks for the tip… now I don’t feel as odd for doing exactly this a few months ago

  6. posted by Aegir on

    Works for some things, not for all. At my grandparent’s 40th wedding anniversary, my siblings and I were given keepsakes of a tiny ceramic owl, handmade in the workshop next to the venue for the celebration. It was a pleasant tactile piece of ceramic, cool to the touch, and as a young’un I enjoyed holding it and rolling it in my hand. I kept it until I was 28 when I was burgled, and the box it was in was taken.

    It’s a bit of clutter I most definitely want back, and no picture (I have one) will ever replace the object itself.

    Always consider the *why* of keeping something.

  7. posted by Erin on

    Aegir –When I was going through my memory box, I found that I had put some things that I truly treasured inside of it. So, instead of photographing those items, I brought them out and put them on display in ways that honored the object. (I framed my master’s diploma, for example … I worked hard for that degree! … and now it hangs in my home office.) My suggestion to you would have been to display the owl and honor it in a way that demonstrates its value to you. Being hidden in a box isn’t the best place for valuable things.

  8. posted by Anonymous on

    I LOVE this idea. I have also used a scanner to archive my childhood “artwork” and such. Some of it I have still kept but I feel better about getting rid of what I can.

  9. posted by Elizabeth on

    My husband and I are about to move across the country and are doing this exact thing for sentimental items we are letting go, even stuff we are ebaying, putting in the yard sale or just giving away or throwing out. We have made a game out of it and are making two albums, one with the items that have emotional attachments and memories, and one we are just calling “shit we finally got rid of”. It is amazing how much junk and even valuable stuff we have kept because we felt obilgated to because of the money we spent on it, it was a gift, a family treasure, or whatever. We are so happy to be doing this, good luck to everyone else! :)

  10. posted by Amelia on

    this is a fantastic idea. Only I think I would use them to make a scrapbook, because I have letters and things too that I would want to keep.

    I just came across a box that had my junior high trophies in it!! Definitely not something I need to display! A photo would certainly serve the purpose for things like that.

  11. posted by Nancy on

    My husband died suddenly when our daughter was 2 years old…I photographed a lot of his stuff, and journaled why they were important to him. It was a healing process for me, and now she will always know why this stuff is in the box!! In the meantime, she flips thru the album pretty frequently, looking at the pix, and reading the descriptions. I even did some of the things that I have that have a story behind them; I highly suggest it.

  12. posted by Unclutterer » Archive » Do you feel animosity toward others in your home about their disorganization? on

    […] post “Photographing your mementos” is a confession that I have not always been committed to simple living practices. It’s […]

  13. posted by Unclutterer » Archive » Reader question: How store favorite correspondence? on

    […] stubs, playbills, etc. I’ve written about this idea a few times in the following posts: Photographing your mementos and Paper clutter […]

  14. posted by Keeping it clean « Máirín Duffy on

    […] literature consistently suggests the following method of removing items from your home: take a photo of it, put it into storage for a while, unearth the box a year later after clearly not having used it […]

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