Decluttering Treasures Week 2: Photographs & Videos

October 2015 Live Decluttering Challenge Game

This week, you and your partner are going to sort through physical photos and videos. (Digital photos are a game for another month.) You can work together in person or via video chat. The non-sorting partner’s task is to gently guide decisions without emotional bias.

Personally, photos are my biggest challenge. I have a large collection of family photographs from the 1920s until the 1990s. As much as I have divested myself of other treasures, photographs are one hard thing to get rid of. But you can do it and so can I. We’re going to winnow through the photos (and videos) in several steps.

Our ultimate goal is to get rid of photos that are not significant and to treat the ones we love best in a special way. How do we dispose of photos? There are a few methods, you may decide to use one or all of them.

Photo Disposal Methods

  1. Throw them away the usual way.
  2. Ceremonially destroy them with well-wishes to the departed souls, former relationships, or old times captured on film.
  3. Pass them along to family members or friends in the pictures.
  4. Take them to the thrift store, flea market, or community center for people to use in their art and projects.

A note before beginning: If you have photo albums created lovingly by a relative or friend, you may want to snap photos of the pages before you sort through the photos. This preserves the artful layout that they created without having to keep the bulky album.

Round One, Sorting

Rejects and Mistakes

First we are looking for the pictures that are obviously not useful to keep:

  • Duplicates: all those “double print” specials from the 1970s.
  • Bad photography: out of focus, out of frame, shots of feet, fingers over the lens
  • Damaged photos: water stained, faded, or otherwise unviewable


There will be a few plums in your collection, the best of the best. These are the  photos you want your grandchildren to have. Set aside anything that you can’t imagine throwing away, perhaps wedding photos, your great-grandfather’s army portrait, a portrait of you and your siblings.

Your Personal Memories

These are the photos that have significance to you, but might not mean much to anyone else: your honeymoon in Cancun, prom photos, your childhood bedroom, the party you hosted to celebrate your promotion, your band in rehearsal, the first carrot from your vegetable garden, the reunion of your high school friends. If you brighten up when you see a photo, set it aside. 

Historical Significance

You may be lucky enough to have some photos of rare historical significance. Your auntie waving as the Hindenburg flies past. The town hall being struck by lightning. Dr. Jones delivering a lecture at your school. These should be set aside and donated to an archive.

Everything Else

By now you have removed the bad photos, and saved the ones that are heirlooms or personal. What about everything else? If you are strong willed, you can toss them. If you feel qualms, review them again for historical significance, personal memories, heirlooms and rejects. Be especially careful to reject any:

  • Unknown subjects. Who? What? Where? If you don’t know who is in the photos, it is time to toss it. Especially true for older photos where there are no living relatives to tell you that is your great-aunt Claire and her first husband, Charles, before he died in the war. Wish the subjects well and make a pile for the thrift store. Let someone use them in their art.
  • Forgotten memories. That was someone’s birthday party? Pizza dinner with your cousins that one time in New Jersey? Too hazy to recall is probably fine to forget.

Round Two,

Editing the Keepers

The first time through, you may have set aside all of your honeymoon photos or every shot from your son’s kindergarten graduation. Now is the time to choose the one or two photos that encapsulate the event. See if you can edit each event down to a handful of photos at most. One group photo, a lovely smile, a proud moment, something funny.

Imagine you are paging through a friend’s photo album. You would really only care to see the highlights. So that is what we are looking for in this phase: the highlights to share.

Another way to think of it is, what would you frame and put on display? If the photo isn’t good enough add to your wall or mantle, should you keep it? I say no. Be brave.

Notes for Posterity

For all the photos you are keeping, jot a note of the date and subject on the back. This will help future viewers know what is what. It also checks that you have reduced to highlights. If you keep repeating “Chicago, 1994. Jane, Martin, & Faye Smith” you have probably kept too many from that event.

Depending on the photo paper, you may use pencil or oil-based marker. Write lightly, so that you don’t indent the paper. Be sure to let the ink dry before stacking the photos together.

Displaying your Memories

Now that you have reduced your photos to a small number of significant ones, will you display them? You might want to frame them and create a gallery in your hall. Perhaps you prefer to build a new photo album, or to organise them by decade in archival boxes that you can reach easily.

Next, The Videos!

You’ll need to repeat the process with home movies you have on VHS or other media. Go about it in the same way as the photos and you will make it through.

Remove the obviously damaged tapes. Watch all the other tapes. If you don’t want to watch the tape, let that be your guide that you don’t want to keep it either.

Make notes about the best parts on each video, whether they are heirlooms, personal memories or historical moments.

Digitise those sections and create a highlight reel that you can show friends and family. After the tapes are digitised you can throw them away. And you can get rid of your old VCR, too!

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