What do you do with a lifetime's worth of photographs? For many people, the answer is obvious: The photos will stay in the family. I ask this question as someone who has neither a spouse nor children.
I once posed this question to a friend. He told me that he won't care what happens to his photos, as he'll be dead. And that's true; once I'm dead, I won't care. I do, however, care now. I'm just not sure how much I care (certainly, enough to write this post). At any rate, I find it somewhat unsettling that decades worth of photographic work may end up in the trash, or in deep storage, never to be enjoyed again. Maybe that's the reality of the situation.
If other options exist, what are they? What can I do with boxes of prints, binders of negatives and slides, hard drives packed with thousands and thousands of digital files? More importantly, how much value do my photos hold for any third party?
I do appreciate the view from the other side of this proposition. If someone were to leave their photographs to me, and I knew very little about the people, places and stories behind the images, how much interest would I have in curating the collection? How much time could I dedicate to those photos? (Very little, frankly. I don't even have the time to finish my own projects.)
Of course, I would have some level of interest in the work of other photographers, depending on the subject matter. I've shared several of my grandfather's vintage photos on Ello. I find them interesting, and not simply because we are related. Rather, I'm fascinated by his Ektachrome views of America as it existed before I was born. I suppose several more decades must pass before my photos could be classified as vintage or nostalgic. And I'm no Vivian Maier; no one is likely to latch onto my archive and load it into books, movies and art museums. I have a fair quantity of nice photos in my collection, but there is surely plenty of mediocre and uninspired content in there as well. Who would want to sort through it all?
Perhaps my age is coloring my outlook. For the majority of my life, I saw photographs and negatives as things to be treasured—the first items that people would grab if the house were to catch fire. Today, everyone is a photographer. High-quality cameras are now a standard feature on every cell phone. Social media conditions its users to shoot anything and everything, no matter how relevant the image. People have thousands of their own photos and instant access to millions more online. Are we now so saturated with images that their value has been diluted and will only become more so with each passing year?
Maybe the best solution is to do what I can to make my photographs available now. I could upload them to the web under a Creative Commons license. But having already accumulated 41 years' worth of content, plus whatever I will produce from now until I disappear into the wilderness, I would need a second lifetime just to scan, upload and tag that many images. That's the kind of monumental task that will paralyze me into doing nothing at all.
Maybe I should be content with whatever I leave behind on Ello and other sites. I'm already sharing my favorite images here; as for the rest, and the hard copies, they can go into the estate sale with my clothes and dishes. Although, if I'm no longer actively posting content on Ello, how many people will visit my page and look at my photos? Does it matter? Is it so important that I leave behind some reminder of my life as a photographer?
Perhaps it's not that important. Just the act of the writing and editing this post over the past several nights has brought much of this into perspective for me, and I am now less concerned about the issue than when I started this piece. Yes, my photographs certainly have value in my mind, but they'll never be that meaningful to anyone else. I accept the impermanence of…well, everything. Why should my photo archive be an exception?
Philosophical rambling aside, I would like to hear your thoughts on any or all of the points I have mentioned. And, are you aware of any websites, institutions, organizations, libraries or schools that would curate a photo collection donated by Joe Average Photographer? Any not-for-profit entities out there that could take these images and sell them as stock photos to generate income for the cause? Any for-profit companies that will preserve your images once you are gone? If not, is there a demand for that service and should I/we launch such a business?
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I would appreciate any feedback you'd like to share.
P.S. Any takers?