Monday, October 17, 2011

Tossing photographs. Sacrilege or no?

I wonder...

If your house were on fire, what would you grab first?

To play this game fairly, let's assume the people and pets are already out of the house.

Most people say their photos. Fair enough. These precious and priceless records of their life can't be replaced. I imagine with the advent of digital photography, these people would change their answer to grabbing their laptop because that's where the original photos live. But basically, it's the photos people are after.

After my weekend at my mom's house, I can assure you that I'd be fine with my photos melting into oblivion. 

Cold, heartless bitch.

Ya ya. Since I bought my first camera, I've been obsessed with photos. I remember the joy at buying film (the canisters were so cute!) and taking photos here, there and everywhere of this, that and the other. I especially enjoyed the teeth tingling splendor of picking up my envelope of photos from the printer. Then there was slight disappointment since, of my 24 photos, about 3 would be great. But whatevs. I shoved almost all of them in albums for posterity's sake. Big beautiful albums. Hours were poured over organizing the order of photos the way some people agonize and lament over the order of songs when making a mixed tape for their latest crush.

Back then I had a powerful disdain for those who developed their film and left the envelope of photos in a drawer. Sacrilege.

For years these beautiful albums that reflected some of my A-Type personality traits sat on the bookshelf of my room at my mom's house. Now that I've become rather minimal with my lifestyle, I decided that this weekend was the weekend I would cull the photos.
tr.v., culled, cull·ing, culls.
  1. To pick out from others; select.
  2. To gather; collect.
  3. To remove rejected members or parts from (a herd, for example).
A herd is right. Do I really need all these pictures of my cats? Two photos, sure. Two albums, no.

Or how about the photos of me at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. What do I remember? Not the day itself, but the day I got this photo developed and was horrified at the size of my thighs. Why did I wear those khakis? Is my ass really that big?

Or the photo of me and an exboyfriend on our tour of Alcatraz in San Francisco. What do I remember when I see this photo? Not the romance. Not the budding love. Not even the prison. I remember him rushing to the boat, late, from yet another work-related task. And me, stressed and afraid, not knowing what to do if he didn't show up. Fear welling that he'd never show. Stranded. I was a young traveler back then. And I remember that this moment was a preamble to our future fights about he, me and work.

Or how about that birthday party of my friend who was in the middle of a rough year. The photos is of her smiling right before she blows out her candles, no doubt wishing for a better year ahead. When I see this photo, I know that it does, in fact, get better, but not before it gets a whole lot worse.

All these photos were tossed. I don't need to dredge up these memories anymore. They are heavy memories and I'm aiming for light. Yes, they were from an important time in the past. There were stepping stones and lessons. But they are done now. They were hard enough the first time. No need to relive these memories again. Lessons learned.

While pouring through these photos, I noticed some slivers of pain come up. I know enough now to know that when something disturbs our peace, school is in session. So as I sorted, I worked my process and practiced compassionate self-forgiveness.
I forgive myself for judging myself as heartless kitty mommy for tossing photos of cats I've loved so much. The truth is these photos are not the actual cats. I'm not tossing actual cats.
I forgive myself for buying into the belief that my body was anything less than a super hero at holding my soul in this journey on earth. The truth is my body is really good at carting me around the globe. And now I know that being overweight is a spiritual issue, I realize I had much spiritual growth based on how I judged those thighs.
I forgive myself for judging my ex-boyfriend for being late. The truth is he was doing the best he could do at the time. And thank Christ we broke up. For a thousand reasons. We both found better, bigger love with someone else.
And that photo of my friend at her birthday? I imagined myself going back in time to hold her and whisper, This moment will pass and I know it will get better.

In between two of my many photo albums I found this:

This is not what you think it is. Math was never my strongest subject so when I was a young girl I took the instruments out of this tin container and added these:

There were many evenings during my childhood when I would sit in my room and try not to hear the shouts in the kitchen. I would sit on my bed, open this tin and look through the stamps for ideas of where to travel. Anywhere but here. Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford commencement speech that we cannot connect the dots moving forward, we can only connect them looking back. These stamps were dots that led to my advertising career in direct marketing and to my current nomadic life on the road. But I didn't know that then. All I knew is that they comforted me during a really shitty time in my past.

I went back in time to hold my young self who was playing with the stamps. Even though I know now that it got a whole lot worse before it got better, I held her and whispered, This moment will pass and I know it will get better. It will be a wild, fun ride. There will be a whole world to explore and you will have the time and means to do it. You will find true love. This is just the rough patch. Remember, this too shall pass.

I wish I would have told myself to spend more time learning French. Do you think I could go back in time again and magically wake up tomorrow morning bilingual? That would be awesome. I might try it.

I implore you, dear reader, to toss the photos from yesteryear that do you no good now. Or to your future self. There is an expiration date on childhood.

Quick tips:
  1. Do it alone. This is not a committee project. 
  2. Be quick about it. You'll likely have less than 2 hours before you get tired of it. 
  3. Have the garbage bag beside you. Be ruthless.
  4. Don't set aside photos to send to people. Unless you're into making more work for yourself.
  5. Work your process. If something triggers you, use self-forgiveness. 
    • "I forgive myself for judging myself as..." 
    • Also, "I forgive myself for buying into the belief that..." 
    • Then add "The truth is..."
      (see above for examples)
This works wonders. You'll feel lighter. You'll feel peace. You might have to wear heavy boots just to keep yourself on the ground. Floating freaks people out.

All the photos aren't worth keeping. Believe me... and Timothy Findley who wrote where they go in You Went Away...
"In the flea market, a shoe box filled with photographs. This is all we have. Whose lives might be recovered, if only the box had been labeled?... The box itself has been destroyed beyond recovery. Time and the elements have done their work. Nothing remains to tell you who these people are. Or were. We know that some of them are dead—dying gently or killed. We know this because they disappear all at once and do not return to stand beside the people with whom they were formerly seen." 
Way to be a downer, Tiff. But it's true. Be the one who sorts through them now so some stranger at a flea market won't be pawing through them with his greasy fingers.

I was ruthless but wasn't evil. Here are a few keepers that still make me happy:
Laundry with my younger sister.
Sears special with my older sister.
Not smiling for the camera.
Likely self-conscious about my bangs.
Wallpaper and sofa mayhem.
Fun times during my Little House on the Prairie phase.

Save the good times. Chuck the bad. Work your process. Move on.


  1. Boy was the a blast from the past.Truthfully Jan I don't look at those pics too often because they tug at my heart. My babies were so cute and they still are. I am such a lucky Mom and I count my blessings every day there are so many things to be thankful for.I know there were some sad times growing up but there were also some good times .I really believe that the tough times that we had made us into stronger individuals.

  2. I love this post. It reminded me of Paige Williams' article in O Magazine awhile back:

    Also glad no cats were tossed in the writing of it. :P

    I SO want to be as strong as you are and be able to chuck the photos in my life. But I'm so attached. I don't think I'll ever be able to do that. I could throw out a lot of stuff, but I don't think I'll ever be able to let go of the photos. Even if they hold stories of pain.

  3. I remember the day you guided me through Huntington Gardens but I don't remember noticing heavy thighs. I remember being in awe that my little niece had suddenly developed into this lovely young woman of confidence and adventure, not in spite of but because of, our humble beginnings.

  4. I also chucked out photos of less happy times. But photos are one of the hardest things to toss.

  5. Mom, Everything you said is true... especially about us being so cute.

    Mel Heth, Not only will you feel lighter by sorting through your photos. It will be good fodder for a blog post.

    Uncle Brad, That was a good day. Maybe it really was just the khaki's.

    Everlost, It would be hard to toss your photos because you're such a shiny beauty in all of them.

  6. I just love your writing. I always read your posts and think of 6 things I want to comment about, and then forget it all. Thank you for showing us some of the 'keeper' photos; I was starting to hyperventilate at the thought of going through all of my old photos.

  7. Fantastic post. Just not quite ready to commit yet.


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