Will Your Family Photos End Up in a Landfill?


It happens to so many families. Not yours!

By Eric Peterschmidt

Are you concerned that your family photos may someday wind up in a landfill? If not, you should be.

I am not necessarily talking about the photos you took yesterday of that amazing pizza, though, to some people, that too maybe something worth keeping. I am really referring to the old family photos, slides, negatives and even films that perhaps your parents, grandparents or other ancestors took that happen to be sitting in boxes.

I am a boomer, and when I grew up, there were several family photo albums that had been passed down from previous generations. My dad had three. They were old – one padded covers that contained mostly portrait photos from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were several other albums that were scattered between my grandma, aunts and uncles. There were not a lot of albums, because there were not a lot of photos taken back then – at least compared to how many are taken today!

What I took for granted back then, was that there was always someone alive who knew who every one of the people in the photos were – and had stories to tell about each. This was true even for the oldest of family photos (in our family that would have been around 1870), because the people alive in the 1960s often personally knew those people when they were still alive.

As a kid, I was like most kids – very busy just playing. The old photos really did not interest me that much, but I would periodically be around my elders, when they were sitting at the kitchen table going through the albums. They spoke about our mutual ancestors with such respect and joy. They had stories to tell and we would all laugh at funny things or be an awe at how people survived challenging situations. For example the time when as a farmer, a great uncle of mine used way too much gunpowder to blow up a tree trunk and launched an anvil that rocketed through the air and came down through a neighbor’s roof. Or, another great uncle who left for the Klondike gold rush, died years later, but when the body was returned to Iowa, his sister said it was not him.

I did not realize it at the time, but these conversations had an impact on me. When I walked away from them, I knew those people being talked about were part of me – part of my family, and that was a source of comfort and security. I did not immediately run out and tell my cousins “you should go hear what Uncle Carl said”, but it registered none-the-less. I was part of that wonderful family – the significance of which would not hit me for decades.

While this was all a very personal experience for me, does it ring a bell for you? Did you have a similar experience growing up? Did your family have photo albums like ours? I bet you probably did, and still do – if not in your possession, in the home of your parents or other family members.

The situation today, however, is very different. While your photo albums are probably doing fine – quietly aging in boxes in closets — your family members who know about them have likely passed or will so in the not so distant future. For you, because of your experiences while younger, the photos are cherished and will be kept – even though you may not know who the people are by name or story. However, what will your children or grandchildren do with them? That is the question. The point is, if nothing is done today, it is very likely that those cherished family photos will be orphaned as nobody living will know who they are and therefore they have no personal value to the surviving family. That is how they get thrown away.

So what can you do? Fortunately, it may not be too late. In fact, it will not be any better than it is today! Why? Because there may still be people alive who can help connect the stories to the photos. Think in terms of “family sourcing” – reaching out to your extended family because everybody knows something, but nobody knows everything. There is great power in the collective knowledge of the family. You just need a way to get the conversation started and content organized.

So, how do you start? Please download the checklist we created that can get you going. You don’t have to feel like you are doing this alone. Even if you have no extended family to help, there are other amazing resources available.

Let us know how you’re doing with your preservation efforts!

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