Old Photos and White Elephants

Seize the day! Those were the words I read on a recent Facebook post. I liked it. My day was cold, rainy and windy, so my seizing needed to be an inside task — so I picked the hardest I knew: clean out the photo albums — all of them. Over the years, photos seem to procreate; I can’t imagine we actually took all those photos. We had so many that we avoided looking through the albums. It had become painful. Maybe I can blame film cameras; we had a tendency to shoot all the frames, whether 24 or 36, and, not knowing what they would look like, order double prints to share with family.

Then, when the prints arrived we automatically placed them in albums — because we always had. In the moment, all the photos seemed alive and vibrant and full of memories, but within a few months they became stale, and within a year we had forgotten most of the details. After a decade or three or four, those meaningless photos grow to consume space and become white elephants.

We probably all have white elephants: items that you cannot use, cannot destroy and cannot give away due either to social pressure or guilt. They rise up around us, starve the oxygen from our lives and demand to be respected. I am fighting back. My goal is to remove 80% of our photos. Yes, that’s sacrilege, an unthinkable task that only an insensitive, uncaring, monster would do. Yet, here I sit, surrounded by stacks of photos and documents, planning to eliminate at least 80% of them. And I am elated.

No, I’m not heartless; over time, we accumulate photos of no interest to others. Does anyone really want to see a photo me at three months old, lying naked on a blanket in the yard? I do hope not, but if they do, is it my obligation to preserve that racy image for their once-in-a-lifetime view? I think not. What about those vacation photos with no dates or information about the location or who was in the photo? Those can probably be trashed. Simple it sounds; simple it is not.

Starting such projects is one thing, finishing them quite another. Within hours I discover the monster; it is not I, but the stack of photos and documents, a monster that seems beyond control, beyond managing: unconquerable. In the midst of the clutter, I discover long-forgotten memories, the photos we treasure but hadn’t seen in years or decades. However, I also discover that revisiting the past can be painful and cause one to dwell there instead of facing today and anticipating tomorrow. A new thought emerges: why do we do this? Why take photos of events in our lives? An irrelevant question? Maybe not.

My dear grandfather was born in 1864 and there are only two photographs of him of which I am aware. History books tell us he lived through interesting times, yet he never had the clutter of a photo album to deal with. My belief is that whatever was important in his life was in his memory, with no need for color photographs, photo albums, or other media. His life was his and so were his memories. The loss is that those memories died with him, but I have no right to them, anyway. There was a time, years ago, when I took a camera to every family event or vacation outing. I no longer do that. What I discovered was that operating the camera removed me from the experience I wanted to save; my camera was capturing other people in the experience, but I was missing. And, gathering everyone together for a group photo only further distanced everyone from enjoying the event itself.

My goal has changed. My earlier goal of removing 80% was focused solely on quantity, and my new goal is to salvage photos that reflect an event or a memory to preserve. I may still end up with the same number of photos, but I will know that those being kept are precious to me and my wife. Life is too short to focus on maintaining visual history and I will feel a huge weight lifted, once I finish this. I know little of scrapbooking, but that seems the solution I seek: preserve history and focus on life. I feel better already.