Reader Mary submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
My parents both passed away before I was 30. My sister and I cleaned out our mom’s house and stored some items in Florida in separate units until we thought we could use them. After 10 years (!!), I finally realized I was never going to move that stuff out to California where I live, so I went back and cleaned out the unit and ended up keeping very little. One thing I did keep, however, is ALL of the family photos, and the envelopes of negatives. Some are in albums (all unmatched, of course) and some are still in their envelopes. Plus I have my own photos and negatives. I’m swimming in this stuff (about 2-3 large totes worth) and have no clue how best to organize, what to keep, what can I toss (the negatives??). Because it’s only me and my sister now, and these photos are all I have as “evidence” of the first three decades of my life.
My condolences about losing your parents. I realize it has been more than a decade, but I’m still sorry for your loss.
As far as the photographs are concerned, I’m of the belief that photographs aren’t clutter. Okay, so maybe that blurry one of the ground you accidentally took in the eighth grade doesn’t need to be in your collection, but the rest are of family, friends, places, and experiences you value. The majority of them likely bring you joy — and those are worth keeping.
However, I don’t think storing them in a large tote is the best way to show you value these images. Here’s how I would tackle the project:
- Pick a Saturday on your calendar when you can sort through all of the photographs. Keep the day free of all other obligations. Wear comfortable clothes, have your favorite snacks on hand, and play your favorite music. Going through all of the pictures is going to take time and a lot of mental energy. Give yourself the day and don’t rush.
- You’re going to want to sort the pictures into two groups: Trash and Keep. Obviously, you’ll throw out and/or shred the Trash pictures at the end of the sorting process. Get rid of any blurry ground shots or ones where the flash didn’t go off and you can’t identify anything in the photo. All black pictures from when you forgot to take off the lens cap can go into the Trash without a second thought. Duplicates, photographs you can’t stand, and anything else you don’t want to keep because it’s associated with a negative experience can go into the Trash pile, too.
- The Keep pile will be the photographs you plan to store and look at from time-to-time. As you decide to keep them, lay them out onto a cleared floor or dining table. I suggest making piles by decade (1970s, 1980s) or life stage (elementary school, middle school, high school). When you put the photographs in albums, you can organize in more detail by months and years.
- Once all of the images you have chosen to keep have been sorted, you may choose to bundle and box the photographs and have them professionally scanned. (ScanMyPhotos and ScanCafe are national companies that do this. However, many photo processing businesses offer this service, so check locally if you don’t wish to ship them across the U.S.) If you have the images scanned, I also recommend uploading a copy to a private Flickr or Picasa Web account. This way, you can easily share the images with your sister and friends, and you have a back up copy in case a fire, flood, or other disaster destroys the originals.
- When you have the original images back from being scanned, you can sort them in more detail and put them into albums. You may decide that since you have digital copies of the photographs that you don’t want to keep the originals. If this is the case, I suggest giving your sister a call and offering them to her. She might prefer the originals to the digital version.
- Write information about the images next to the photographs in the album, or type the information into the Notes field of the digital file. This way, you’ll know who is in the picture, when it was taken, and why you chose to keep the picture. These can be great reminders when, years from now, you have forgotten some of this information.
- If you use photo albums, store them in a place where you can easily look at them and enjoy them whenever you want. Keeping them in a box in a closet or a basement makes it difficult to view these memories. Also, you may find a few favorites in the tote that you want to frame and enjoy every day.
As far as negatives are concerned, I don’t see anything wrong with ditching them if you have a good, quality digital copy of the image. Most photographic printers are digital these days, even at photo-processing businesses, so a good scan should be all you need if you want to make physical copies of an image.
Thank you, Mary, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.
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