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Lockdown decluttering – is it OK to throw away old photos?

Blog | By Gillian Powell | Apr 16, 2020

Be ruthless... (Credit: Grap)

My family history and whole life story is spilling out of boxes from various hiding places.

I have accumulated a huge number of photographs: a sepia print of my grandmother’s wedding in 1919, my embarrassing student years with a dodgy perm and pictures of numerous toddlers who now tower overme. It’s the perfect time to put my pre-digital archive in order. But how, when the dining table groans under the weight? Albums are ordered on-line and, rather than working out, my daily exercise of sorting out begins.

It’s striking how many different picture shapes and sizes are unearthed. As I pick them up and peer closely, taking my glasses off, I’m transported back in time. Square, faded colour ones of my big brother and I on Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth. Tiny ones from the photo booth in Woolworths where my best mate and I giggled, pulling faces at each other and the camera. Black and white arty ones from my student days printed during late nights in the college dark room.

It’s all very well, according to William Morris to ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ He obviously didn’t have a pile of old photographs to sort through. I suggest an addendum ‘or have pictures of people when you cannot remember who they are.’

One black and white photograph is from a school reunion over 20 years ago. Once scanned, I manage to upload it onto the Facebook page of my old hometown. Within hours, so many names from the class register comment. It’s an unexpected chance to rekindle forgotten friendships and, in some cases, a gentle reminder of why we lost touch long ago.

There are glorious views of snow-topped peaks, fabulous sunsets and beautiful beaches but I have no idea where. A reminder of a time when I was lucky to work in different countries. These pictures can be upcycled; I won’t have to buy another birthday card ever again.

I realise it really is okay to throw away photographs, especially those that are blurred or out of focus. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love those faces that end up in the bin. I make my selection – less definitely is more. Superfluous photographs are bundled into separate piles that I’ll post to those people who I do recognise and still have an address for in my trusty Filofax. Will they be glad to be reminded of happy times – or wonder who on earth sent them?

But some photos will be treasured for ever. Dad died when I was just six years old; there’s a close up of his hands. For the first time I notice that our fingers are the same shape.

And some photos make me laugh out loud. In one I’m holding baby Lucy who graduated five years ago. The shirt I’m wearing in the picture is the same one I’m wearing today.