Tips for Inheriting a Family Photo Collection

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Here’s a riddle for you: what is priceless in the right hands, but worthless in the wrong ones? As you have no doubt guessed from the title of this blog post, the answer is “a family photo collection.” Old photos can give a glimpse into a parent’s childhood or a family’s past; serve as a genealogy tool; and perhaps most importantly, serve as a connection between generations that may never meet—but only if that family photo collection is handled correctly.

Why Family Photo Collections Don’t Get Managed

Considering the unique and irreplaceable nature of old family photos, you would think that curating them would be a bigger priority for most people. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. Why?

In the aftermath of a loved one’s death, there are a lot of details to manage: settling the estate, paying debts, perhaps selling the house that the decedent lived in. Getting a house ready for sale is often when a family photo collection comes to light. With all of the other urgent tasks involved in estate administration, sorting through family photos frequently takes a back seat. When the crush of probate tasks subsides, it’s all too easy to toss old photographs in a box to be dealt with later. And because sorting through family photos is usually a task without a real deadline, “later” becomes…even later.

Another reason this task often gets pushed back is because, quite frankly, it can be overwhelming: there may be thousands of photos, and people don’t know where to begin. Family photographs may feel like holy relics; throwing out a blurry shot of unfamiliar people can seem like sacrilege, even if there is no one surviving who knows the picture’s significance. That is to say, old photos can be time-consuming to sort through, challenging to organize, and difficult to throw out. We’ve gathered some guidance to make the process easier.

How to Curate a Family Photo Collection

There are many family photo collection ideas you can put into action, but the first step before deciding on one is to understand your “why:” what is the goal of managing the collection, and who is the intended audience for the photos when you are through with sorting them?

Imagine yourself as a filmmaker making a documentary about your family or a historian writing a book. Understand that just as future generations wouldn’t want to watch a bloated ten-hour movie or read a 2,000 page book, they don’t need—or want—to see every picture. Keep the needs of your intended audience at the front of your mind.

Therefore, you absolutely have permission to get rid of some, even many, of the photos in the collection. Filmmakers cut hours of footage, writers edit mercilessly, and you can throw out photos that won’t serve the goals you have for your family photo collection. But how?

Start Broad and Work Toward Narrow

If you pick up each photo and try to decide what to do with it before moving on to the next, you will never complete your task. Experts recommend beginning with a broad sort:

set up three boxes labeled Keep, Toss, and Maybe. Your first job is to gather all the photos you need to go through in one place, and then sort photos quickly into these three categories. Keep photos with obvious significance, toss those that are blurry or unremarkable, and put those you think might be important in the “Maybe” box. A good example of a “maybe” is a photo of a relative you can’t identify, but an older aunt or uncle may be able to help you with.

Items may move from box to box after your initial sort, of course. You may discover you have many duplicates of similar shots in your Keep box and decide to move some to Toss. Keep the best few photos of an event or vacation. Remember: you’re trying to convey a sense of family history, not every last detail.

Don’t Get Hung Up on Precision

Once you have your box of Keepers, try to organize them. Chronological organization works for most people. Don’t get hung up on whether the picture is of Christmas 1962 or 1963; it won’t matter too much to family members born decades later. “Christmas at Grandma Smith’s, early 1960s” is just fine.

Label or Caption

As a general rule, the value of family pictures is in what they represent. If viewers don’t understand why a picture should matter to them, a photo is little more than a piece of paper. If the photos aren’t already labeled, carefully label the back with the event, location, and identities of the people in the pictures. If you are having the pictures converted into some other medium, such as a book, video, or digital file, make sure there are captions.

Decide How to Store and View

As mentioned above, you have numerous options for storing and displaying your family photo collection; it all depends on the needs of your audience. If the only people who will be interested in the photos are you and your immediate family, it may be enough to store them in a decorative box or album. If siblings or cousins might want copies, you might want to scan the photos and have several copies of a video or photo book created, and also put the photos on a thumb drive.

Scanning has its place and can clear clutter, but it’s without a downside. The nice thing about a physical photo is you can view it without any technology. If you decide to scan photos or slides, they won’t take up room in your house, but they will consume digital storage. Unless you have a good file management system, it may be hard to locate particular images when you want them. If you do decide to go through the time and expense of scanning, consider using the scanned images to make photo books that you and other family members can easily leaf through and enjoy.

Help Dealing with Family Photo Collections

Sorting through family photos should be a source of happy memories, not stress. If dealing with your family photos is just too much, you can hire professional photo managers to take the task off your plate. Hiring help is an expense, of course, but it’s worth it if it preserves important family memories.

Future generations won’t have to deal with boxes of old pictures, because images will be digital. Unfortunately, that can create its own issues. For help with your own digital estate planning, or with administering a loved one’s estate, contact Estate Planning & Elder Law Services to schedule a consultation.

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