Decluttering Photos

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Boy in a box. Discards on left, keepers on right.

Begin with the paper photos. We will deal with digital ones later.

Gather them all in one place. Albums, boxes, envelopes, booklets. Pile them all up.You will have to adjust the space and time allotted for the project depending on the volume of photos you are dealing with. I would recommend you go so far as to include the photos in frames scattered about the house. You may find another photo you would prefer to display and it is a good idea to see how much of something you are dealing with.

Now, take a Before photo of your project. You may delete it at the end, if you choose, but you will not be able to recreate this disorganized pile after you have decluttered.

I recommend that you work in blocks of time, no less than 15 minutes and no more than 1 hour. Sorting through photos is surprisingly emotional work and you do not want to becomes discouraged or exhausted and give up.

You will be organizing them eventually, but for the first pass through just do this: 1) discard any bad photos: faces cropped off, thumb over the lens, you can’t tell what it is a photo of, it is supremely unflattering to most of the parties in it. You get the idea. 2) You realize the photo actually does, or should belong to someone else. Put these in a box or large envelope labeled with the person’s name. For example, when I sold my house and went through my photos then, I kept copies of my favorites of the kids when they were little. But other photos of them, especially ones that were multiples like school photos in different sizes, I gave to the individual child. When I was going through photos at my mom’s house, I came across formal baby photos of a cousin and his parent’s wedding photos. I sent those to him. He and his sister were thrilled to get them. Perhaps, you have photos of a family member involved with a group that would like to have the photos related to the group activity? 3) You do not know the people in the photo. Set these aside. You may be able to find another family member or friend who does know who they are. Don’t work on that now, unless the person who may know will not be available to you later (they are gravely ill, moving soon, or have early symptoms of dementia.)

Good job! Take a Stage Two photo of your piles. Now you may throw away the bad ones and give away the photos you identified as belonging to someone else. Presumably you have a little bit more room to work with now, which the sorting step requires.

How you organize the photos really depends on your preferences and how you plan to use them. Some people like photo albums or scrapbooks with a theme (wedding, high school, a particular trip) and some prefer the photo albums in chronological order, i.e. one person’s baby photos, then school photos, then adult photos. When I was younger, I had that type of photo album. Eventually I pulled out the photos of my first husband, which left gaps. Then I pulled out all the photos and put them in archival boxes. That method takes the least space, but makes them less likely to be retrieved and shared with others. Think about how you like to use your pictures and what type of type of storage will facilitate that.

Now you should purchase any albums or boxes or envelopes or binders you need to sort the photos and negatives. The photos and negatives should be stored separately. Buy archival tools as your budget will allow. If you don’t have a lot of time or money at this stage, putting the photos in archival boxes will at least preserve them for the future.

I recommend sharing duplicates with others and keeping just one copy of your favorite photos. Similarly, if you have twelve sunset photos taken during that Hawaiian vacation, select the best one and discard the rest. Some folks just can not discard any photo they have taken, no matter how bad or uninteresting…but I doubt they are reading this blog.

Think about the best place to store your newly decluttered photos. Attics and basements and garages are not good places due to the fluctuations in temperature and humidity which can destroy or degrade the pictures.

Take a Final photo of your collection and congratulate yourself on your hard work.

Digital photos:

  1. Delete photos as identified above as not worthy to keep.
  2. Organize them into folders that make sense to you, i.e. by person, trip, date.
  3. Back up your files.

Good luck, and let me know how the process is going. Be mindful that a large volume of photos can take weeks or months to sort through.

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12 thoughts on “Decluttering Photos

  1. Béatrice says:

    Thank you Fawn for this step by step guide! I personally do not have any paper photos. When I was a teenager I made two albums for my childhood. One for the ages 0 to 12 and another one for 13 to 18. It was easy because we did not take much photos at the time (neither my father or my mother were very passionate about photography). And I never owned a camera for the 15 years of my adult life before digital camera came around. Not that I did not have the money. I am not sure why but I think I already was some sort of minimalist without knowing it. I usually would buy a disposable camera before trips and then put them in a album not so long after. I have 3-4 albums with various trips and vacations or special events.

    For digital pictures, I must admit I am one year behind in my filing but I am otherwise quite happy with my system. I allow myself to keep:
    30 pictures per month (it can be less)
    100 per year max.
    It may sound like a lot, but with small children, there are a lot of cute or funny pictures.

    For each year, I have 2 additional folders:
    One with bad pictures that are really funny (or random pictures taken by small children – sometimes this is hilarious because todlers have a totally different perspective – they see things from ….a lower height (!) and looking at this pictures has allowed me to understand how they perceive the world around us! Very instructive indeed.

    The other folder is made of pictures from the “100 pics a year folder” and they just are the best ones (no specific number). With these I make photo books for grand-parents that we give as Christmas gift. Since we live far away from my mother and my in-laws, we meet just a few times a year and these gifts are greatly appreciated.
    My goal is also to make one family album every 2-3 years to keep for us. These will be great to take with me one day to my retirement home, in 40 or 50 years! I don’t expect to have more than 10-15 books at the end of my life…my life in summary for the next generations!!! But this is maybe already too much to pass on….

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    • Fawn says:

      Wow! Beatrice, you have a great system. I think you should be giving the tutorial. And don’t worry about being behind in anything when the children are little. That is just part of that stage of life.

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      • Béatrice says:

        My struggles are sentimental items, personal notes, journal articles, personal diaries, old calendars, various to-do lists (I sort them over and over again – a particular kind of procrastination I guess) that I never tackle, lists of various things (gifts for family members, restaurants, books to read, people to invite, etc….). My life is very much cluttered by all these.

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      • Fawn says:

        Personally, when I had small children, I found to-do lists enormously helpful. At the time, I lived on a farm and they kept me from driving all the way into town and forgetting something I had to do there. I think a short list of books to read, restaurants to try can be helpful. But if an item has been on the list for years, you obviously are choosing to do other things first. What kind of sentimental items? How many? Tickets to concerts you went to as a teenager? Baby shoes? How many are there? I saved a set of baby clothes for each kid, but when they grew up, they had zero interest in them, so they discarded them. I’m glad I saved them and they had the option of the choice. I knew a woman whose son had died at the age of 2 years from a tumor decades before. She was in her seventies when I knew her. Sometimes, she told me, when she was missing him particularly, she would get out his old baby blanket and drape it over her shoulders and rock in the rocking chair. I would never tell someone with an object that powerful to get rid of it. What do the old calendars and journal articles do for you?

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      • Béatrice says:

        Old calendar journals are there to tell me where my life has gone. What all these hours that make the tread of life contained.
        As for article journals, it is more tricky. Since I was little, I always wanted to “know it all” and be a person of vast knowledge, educated in all sorts of subjects, so I would always keep articles “to read”. To some extent I have maintained this habit (I make no difference if it is printed or online articles) and accumulated information, I do get rid of articles when I feel that I have incorporated the information enough. I keep sometimes old articles because I don’t think I can find the information online. I am very sensitive to the fact that the browsers we use to search information online are biased, and that most sources refer to one another. In that way, old articles help to have fresh ideas and to create knew knowledge by making me think along unusal paths.

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      • Fawn says:

        Sorry for the delayed response. I was travelling, visiting my daughter. So-old calendar journals are like a time/to-do diary. Useful. My thoughts on article journals are more complex, and I’m guessing yours too. Studying and learning new things is a wonderful habit, and it makes sense to me that you keep articles until you feel you have assimilated the information. When I am studying a new topic (folk and couture embroidery last fall) I take classes, get library books and articles, purchase books, etc. Then I started with the embroidery projects and now that I have figured out what I want to do with embroidery, I have passed along the instructions and am learning by doing. I am doing something similar with gardening and native species now–have several books to read, am ordering plants, there is a messy stack of info here. (continued)

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      • Fawn says:

        Reading and juxtaposing different ideas can lead to creativity and new paths of thought, as can the “doing” or implementing the ideas. Being educated and well- read is a life-long and worthy goal. That said, it isn’t possible to know everything. I only knew some of the words in the title of a poster presentation given by my daughter on the behavior of hydrogen particles in distant galaxies. There are many people in the world who know things that I will not know in this life-time. I’m okay with that. As long as the articles you are saving serve you in some way (other than as “proof” of how smart you are) you should make space for them. If you are keeping the articles as a shield for your ego, then you should give them the squinty eye and the heave-ho. My mother keeps a wall of books that is 16 feet wide by 22 feet high. She has read about 10% of them. She keeps them for two reasons. 1) she likes the aesthetic (which seems an ok reason, but then she should dust them) and 2) it makes her feel well-read. (this is a story her ego is telling to make her feel better about herself.) Do these distinctions make sense?

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  2. Priscilla Bettis says:

    Thank you for the photo guide, Fawn. I already passed along a family photo album to the next generation. I NEVER looked at it, so I figured why keep it to myself? For LOTS of my childhood photos, whenever I came across one that gave me an unhappy memory, I tossed it. It’s like if I had a mean Aunt Edna (I don’t, but as an illustration), I tossed all the photos that had Aunt Edna. It felt so good. Now I only have photos that remind me of happy events.

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    • Fawn says:

      We are of a like mind when it comes to the photos. I also keep only the happy ones. And I have passed on to the next generation many of the photos that I did not look at and they were interested in having.

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  3. Angela says:

    This is a very well thought out post. I have loved photos all my life, so at 43 I feel l have mostly kept it in check having 6-8ish small albums. I’m thinking most of the major (photo- type taking) events have already happened in my life like wedding, daughter’s childhood as she is eighteen now, etc…. I’m hoping so because I do not want to accumulate a heavier load as I age. I thought about getting rid of them all about a year ago. For now I’ve kept them because I’m not sure if I’d regret it later on, and my husband and daughter might want photos of our life. I wonder though, why do we need everything so well documented from the past? Maybe just the odd moment here and there is enough. I have mixed feelings about this. Anyways, thank you Fawn for taking the time again to write such an interesting post! And it’s really nice to read other people’s thoughts and feelings on the subject as well. 🙂

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    • Béatrice says:

      “Why do we need everything so well documented from the past?”
      Thank you for formulating it so clearly because it wasn’t so clear in my mind. However, I realize this is exactly the type of question I am asking myself. Why is documenting so important for those of us that tend to keep memorabilia/photos/sentimental items?
      I have a strong feeling that if I could find answers to this question for myself that would help me a lot both to move forward with my life and to declutter my mind. I am quite convinced that the struggles that we face when trying to get rid of this type of belongings are great materials to get to know ourselves and how we function!
      Has anyone suggestions for why documenting feels important? And whether it really is important?

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    • Fawn says:

      I think that there are several reasons that we want to keep a record of our past. 1) We are afraid we will forget. 2) When we become famous, the museum will need all the records (He, he) 3) It is proof that we were here. Who of us would have known about the short and precious life of Anne Frank, if she had not kept a diary? I do think that you should talk to you husband and daughter about the photos and see how important the photos are to them. My brothers have different levels of interest in the photos that documented our parent’s early life. I say, let the person with the highest level of interest be the keeper of the photos.

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