Tackling Those Photo Albums

The task of sorting and organizing hundreds or thousands of photographs can seem daunting, but there’s no better time than now to take on the project.


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When I was in college, I read a l6th-century sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard called “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille” (“When You’re Very Old”) that opened with an image of an old woman sitting by a fire, spinning yarn by candlelight. One day, I would be that woman, but instead of yarn, I would be spinning memories evoked by pictures kept in photo albums.

I started making photo albums during my teenage years and continued into adulthood. Before the advent of digital photography, I compiled about 30 albums, filled to bursting with photos of friends, birthday parties, homemade costumes, weddings, summer camps, Hebrew school, vacations, and so much more. My photo albums were my emotional retirement plan, my long-term care policy for my mental health.

Once we stopped shooting on film, the albums were packed away into large cartons labeled “Photo Albums” and sealed with thick masking tape. The heavy boxes were schlepped from house to apartment to house to storage unit to house. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for each time I said, “I have to do something with the photo albums.” It was a task on my to-do list that never got done.

A few months ago, I was carrying a basket of clothes into the laundry and storage room when I noticed the wall of cartons, now covered with a light coating of dust. I dropped the laundry into the washer, picked up a microfiber rag, and began dusting them off.

It was time to check this task off my list.

I wrote to friends asking what they did with their photos. Most replied that I should let them know if I figured it out. Others had hired companies to digitize them all. I came up with my own game plan.

I opened one carton, carefully lifted out an album, and began to remove pictures from the plastic sleeves. Each photo was labeled with the year, people, destination, and brief description in the margins of the page.

Holding the photos in my hands and recalling the times and events each captured was overpowering. I laughed, I smiled, I cried. Along the way, I encountered photos of people, events, and myself that I had forgotten. I selected the photos I wanted to keep and placed them lovingly in a large envelope and promised that I would visit with them again.

It took me three weeks to go through all 30 albums. When I finished, all the envelopes fit into a small plastic bin. And then, heaving a huge sigh of relief, I discarded the rest. It was wonderful to travel into my own past through photos and carefully select what I wanted to keep.

If you’re like me, the task of sorting and organizing hundreds or thousands of photographs can seem daunting, so it’s understandable why many of us keep putting it off. But there’s no better time than now to tackle the project.

Years from now, I will be sitting by a fire, looking through cherished photos I’ve saved, and fondly recalling unforgettable moments and loved ones from the past.

Alternative Uses for Old Pictures

Gifts: Pass old photos to friends and family who might appreciate them.
Donate: Historical societies or local museums may want photos that document days gone by.
Collage: Buy a fancy frame or just cut-and-paste on a poster board to create a large piece suitable for hanging.
Crafting: From switchplates to skirts, there are hundreds of ways to turn photos into something else entirely.
Scrapbook: Tell a story in a dressier way with elaborate fonts, stickers, and cut-outs.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and speaker who has authored three books and given a TEDx talk on deep travel. Read more at GlobalAdventure.us.

This article is featured in the May/June 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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