Your old photos need you

We all have old photos, and they’re around here somewhere … in a storage bin, in a shoe box, or in a photo album in the basement. Maybe some photos are on your computer or phone, or floating in the Cloud.

Think of all your old photos and how they capture people and places and good times — not only from your own childhood but from farther back than that: from your parents’ lives, your grandparents’ lives.

The future of your family belongs to people who may have no idea who any of the people in those photos are.

Even to the youngest generation in your family right now, your oldest photos are of people they never met or have no attachment to.

What do you think might happen to those photos when no one knows anymore who the people in them are?

That’s right: Those photos may get thrown away, along with your and your family’s history.

It happens.

But it doesn’t have to. Simple steps can help protect and preserve your family history.

And these are not things to do “someday”: Do them now.

  1. Locate all your old photos (and slides, negatives, and home movies on video or film). Know what you have and where it all is. Don’t tell yourself, “Oh, they’re somewhere up in the attic” — go look. Things may not be where you think they are. If you can, gather all your old photos into one place.
  2. Store these photos safely. Photos kept in a cardboard or plastic box on the floor are not protected from flooding. Photos in a damp cellar are not protected from mold. Photos that aren’t in a safe aren’t protected from fire.
  3. Go through these old photos — and I appreciate that for some families, this may be an especially time-consuming task. Organize your photos the best you can, and pick out the oldest ones, the most sentimentally valuable ones, and the ones that represent the happiest memories.
  4. Make copies of these most important photos. Photo scanners are not that expensive (and you may have a friend with a scanner). If you have an important photo that’s only digital or in the Cloud, make both a digital copy and a hard copy.

Step #4 is so crucially important that it deserves elaboration.

You might say to yourself, “Oh, I don’t need to make copies. If there’s ever a fire in the house, I’ll just grab the box of photos and run.”

No.

If your home ever goes up in flames, you may not be home when that happens. Second, in an emergency, your first priority will be to save yourself and your loved ones: There may not be time to grab anything. And firefighters are not going to let you “run back in real quick” to grab stuff. If the photos aren’t destroyed by fire, they could be destroyed by water from a fire hose.

When you make a hard copy of an old photo, write on the back who everyone is and if you know, what year the photo was taken. For digital photos, add text to the digital file. And before you send copies of a photo to members of your family — ensuring that you’re not the only one in possession of it — be sure they know who’s who in the photo.

One option for your family is to set up an online DropBox account, into which you all can upload your cherished photos. That way, everyone who has access to the account can download copies, further protecting your photos from being damaged or lost.

And who knows: People in your family may have photos of ancestors that you’ve never seen!

We take so many photos today with our phones — spreading them around on social media — that we seldom stop to think about those photos of which there is Only. One. Copy.

You may have thousands of photos of your children or nieces and nephews, but there is likely only one photo of your great-grandparents.

Do you have that photo? Do you know where that photo is right now? Do you know who else has a copy, in case something happens?

To you, these old photos from your family’s past mean the world.

But to a fire, those photos are only fuel. On top of that, your phone could go on the fritz; your computer could crash; your Cloud could be hacked. Why lose the only copy of your most valuable photos when you don’t have to?

And even when you do protect all your most precious photos, if you don’t organize, annotate, and circulate copies of them, then sooner than you think, those photos will just become, to someone else, pictures of strangers, void of value and meaning.

Take care of this now. The youngest generation in your family — and future generations — will thank you.

Tim Lemire is a writer and artist based in Providence, RI.

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