What to do with photos when a photographer passes?

I received this message recently:

I wonder if you can help me.
My sister was a professional photographer in Canada. Sadly she has dementia and I have the task of clearing her house. She has a large collection of nature and wildlife slides, I don’t want to just throw them away. Do you have any suggestions of any one or an organisation that could make use of them.

Does anyone have ideas on what can be done with these photos? Specifically for this person or as a more philosophical discussion of what happens to our photos once we leave this earth.

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Good question, David. I don’t have an answer but I’ve thought about this a lot. Love to hear what others think on this subject.

I’ve actually thought about doing a whole podcast on this!

Brooks Jensen actually wrote something up about this awhile ago (or it was one of his mini podcasts).

I feel like the best thing would be to make a website and put the photos on it in memoriam. Jack Curran’s son still operates Jack’s site.

Otherwise she could always donate them to an organization.

I have what is to be done with my photos in my Will… lol

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David,

This is a great question and one that I’m guessing many photographers are contemplating this - I know I have been. I have a stockpile of some 16,000 35mm slides and probably a couple thousand 4x5 transparencies.

And for those aging 'togs like me who are perhaps creating Trusts, wills and doing general cleanup to leave less a mess for their heirs… it’s a very pertinent question. Been thinking for years what to do with all, or some of them.

  • Easiest, saddest and least desirable would be to throw them all away. I don’t want to do this… However, SOMEONE is going to have to cull them… go through them. There will be countless slides that should be tossed - over/underexposed and otherwise images that wouldn’t be of value to anyone.
  • And what to do with duplicates? Many who were either pro or were shooting for stock, etc., shot in camera duplicates. Multiple copies of the same scene? Keep all those?

Ideas/

  • DONATE. I have contemplated putting in my will/Trust donating a select set of Yosemite images to the Yosemite Conservancy - or other non-profit orgs. For wildlife, how about the WWF? or other wild life organizations?
    (then neigh-sayer might say by donating and giving away you’re taking away from a working pro…) but I think donating is valid option. Again, someone will have to go thru the inventory… and I wouldn’t put that burden on the donating organization by just dumping all of them. Then those images would end up in the trash.

  • Inquire to family and friends who might be interested in managing a legacy of images. Again, images would have to be culled

  • Digitize the good, quality and valuable slides and create a digital archive that can easily be transferred to future generations.

  • NOVELTY items? I’ve been thinking about things that couuld be made that showcase the images?

    • Perhaps a coffee table sized light table - acrylic with the best or themed slides embedded and designed in to a conversation piece.
    • Anything that requires light: lampshades, curtain/door coverings? hanging print type frames with a light source - all for display of some number of the person’s collection.
    • I had visited a gallery at Squaw Valley ski resort (1960 Olympic venue) and the photographer had strung hundreds of 35mm slides as a window covering at the front of the gallery. Looked kinda cool and it got many people to stop and check out.
  • What else? I know I’m looking for ideas!

And speaking of which… some of you may have heard of this - and it’s not a new concept, but for those near or in retirement, there are books written about the concept of “Swedish Death Cleaning” google it. Basically, just the very simple idea to clean up ALL your “garbage” you’ve accumlated in your life BEFORE you pass it along to your children… remove the burden cleaning out the attic, the garage - your old film slides, etc. etc. Anyway, sounds like some great projects to take on in retirement - which may be soon for me!

Just some random thoughts. I too will be most interested in other ideas.

Thanks for posting. And sorry for this person’s situation. My father spent the last 5 years of his life in memory care with dementia. Fortunately for me, he had moved prior and discarded most the families “stuff” and I didn’t have much to deal with in the end… But for many, this is a significant task later in life.

Lon

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I’ve thought about it as well, and will consider the donation route, if there are specific organizations I’m comfortable with that work specifically in the regions I’ve covered.

Assuming my family’s in a comfortable financial situation, I’d rather go the full donation route than leave them to deal with the business of worrying about copyright management, licensing, etc… but I guess we’ll see how that all plays out.

Since March of this year, I have had the unpleasant experience of cleaning out two houses. One from the death of the last parent living there, the other from advanced dementia and she can no longer live at home and we sold the house.

I want to put in a vote for “Swedish Death Cleaning”. If you’ve never been through the process of cleaning out the home of a loved one, it is about as unpleasant an experience as you can have.

We went through thousands of old prints and slides at both houses and in the end, the only things that had any value to us were photos of family. All of the rest ended up in the dump. We also learned something really valuable. Your “stuff” is worthless to everyone else. Nobody wants any of it, no matter how valuable you might think it is. From VERY expensive furniture to kitchens full of every imaginable kitchen supply to a wood workshop that would have been a nice addition to the staff at “This Old House”. Do your kids a favor (or whoever is going to clean out your house) and clean out the stuff before you die.

We might think our photos are great, and some of them are, but in the end, good luck giving them to anyone that you think will do anything of value with them. Whatever is in your portfolio, I’m going to guess there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of images already out there at your favorite charity that represent the subject matter.

Maybe not a very uplifting message, but from all of our interactions with donations, dumps and charities, nobody really wants any of your stuff.

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Funny that you posted this, Keith. I have a similar POV. And I speak from a little experience of having my in-laws leave their house and then die separately, years apart. It was wrenching, but ultimately enlightening. Not quite the same as your experience, but I’m sure it will come when my parents die or have to leave their home. This is what I wrote this morning -

Unless there is a photo of a Tasmanian tiger, the last Dodo or some other rarity, I don’t think there is any real value to old slides or photos of nature. Just like the old Cabinets of Curiosity amassed by both amateur and professional naturalists of yore, how many of these things do we need? Sure, a few representative collections of certain classes and phyla are ok, but hundreds? Same goes with pictures in my opinion. Maybe a local museum or historical society will want them, but again, how many other donations have they taken, and possibly taken reluctantly? It’s a crap shoot with this kind of thing. If the collection has some significance or tie to a specific area or specialty, I can’t think of anyone who’d want or value them. Just the way it is most of the time.

I’m pretty dispassionate when it comes to this kind of thing. When I’m dead, pretty much everything I own and have created will go into a dumpster. No illusions. No false pride. No tears. It’s ok. With all the billions of people on this earth presently, and all the millions that came before and will come after - I am insignificant. It’s ok. I’m precious to the people I know who love me, but they too are of no consequence to the grand scheme of the universe. That’s ok, too. So when I’m dead, my photos, the jewelry I’ve made, the objects I have collected (omg, my books!) - all are just junk to anyone else. Pretty much. So ok, the Eames chairs might get snapped up and a few other “valuables” that we haven’t sold off already, but everything else is just junk. And that’s ok. The fact that I made them or bought and enjoyed them during my brief span on earth is enough. If anyone else finds them worthy of hanging onto afterward, fine. But really, after a few generations, what’s the attachment? Why keep stuff? Unless it’s some significant work of genius revered by all (and the arbiters of this kind of thing are so … arbitrary, sorry), what’s the point? Out it goes.

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I’ve prepared my 100 favorite photos as JPGs (not PSDs or Tiffs) on flash drives to pass on to my children when I die. I occasionally update it. I’m thinking of making a book with my hundred favorite photos and a little story around each photo. They probably will enjoy the stories more than the photos. I doubt anyone else would be interested in the photos. Having gone through dealing with both my mother and fathers stuff after their deaths, I totally agree with Keith and Kristen. Get rid of most of your stuff that is lying around collecting dust.

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I too have given this some though over the past couple years and sadly, I don’t think anyone will care about my images when I’m gone and I seriously doubt that anyone will ever go through my Lightroom catalog of images.
Similar to @Tony_Siciliano , I have an ongoing project that I simply call my “Photographs”. It’s a collection of my absolute favourite image that I made small, handheld prints of and that I store in a portfolio box. Right now, I have 102 photos and I add a couple new ones every year. I figure that if this box of images is all that’s left of me when I’m gone than that is more than I could ever ask for.

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I also agree with the idea of getting rid of as much as possible for your die. And yes, I have been going through a lot of “stuff” so our sons will not have to deal with them. Also, I’ve not only dealt with the death of my parent, but also my husband’s parents and several other family members. It is devastating on so many levels. I think the least I can do is to try to easy the situation. I do not have thousands of photos, hundreds (slides and prints included) maybe, one thing I did do recently was to go through many of my prints (mostly nature - flowers, insects other animals) and donated them to the pre-school at our local church. The teacher was thrilled! . . . and yes, it made me feel good that they would make some children happy.

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I’d hope that my kids would take my image collection for memory keepsake, but also if they take an interest to the business side of things they can maintain my website and keep making money off of my photos.

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That would make for a very interesting podcast, Matt. A subject many of us might occasionally think about, but might not do enough about until it would be too late.

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My father was an amateur photographer and died in 2011. Because I enjoy photography, I got all his 35mm slides. He had around 10,000 slides. They sat at my house for years until I finally got around to reviewing them after my mom passed in 2014. I culled until I had about 3500 unique shots. I shopped around to have them scanned, but it was expensive. In 2016 I started working for a small public library and within a year we purchased a slide scanner. It was a mechanical scanner, kind of like a projector. It kept jamming so the library bought a flatbed scanner with the capability to scan slides (it’s an Epson V850). I eventually finished scanning and was able to upload the scans to Google drive for anyone in the family that wanted to download them.
The library offers the use of the scanner for free, but the patron has to do the actual scanning. It’s an investment in time and effort, but there was no charge. I’ve got a patron now who has about the same number of slides as I did. Many of them are of his late wife and late son. My point is that you can check with your local library to see if they offer a similar service. We also offer digital conversion of VHS,VHS-C, DVR, and the old reel to reel 8mm and super 8 movies. Again, please check with the libraries in your area.

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I went through this about 5 years ago with my 50+ years of stuff. I trimmed down to what I can fit in a 17 foot travel trailer. At that level you are cautious about adding to the bulk of your life, anytime you purchase something you have to consider if you have room for it.

It took 3 runs to the dump in a 14 foot moving truck to empty my place. I had 3 collections that I was loath to just toss out. In the end probably 40 lbs. of photos, an Epson flatbed scanner, and over 10,000 transparencies ended up at the dump.

  1. Matted/framed photographs that dated back into the mid 70’s, These went to a young friend and his now wife both of whom appreciate art and photography. They have decorated their home with them and a couple of Rembrandt etchings I had. He also kept my 4x5 negatives. And I gave him my autographed “Range of Light” that was signed by Ansel Adams when I attended the 1983 Ansel Adams Workshop in 1983.
  2. A collection of over 500 classical LP’s went to his brother who loved classical music. He also got my high end Sansui Tuner Receiver, Dual turntable, and Yamaha speakers that were purchased while I was stationed in Germany in 1971. They now reside in his fly fishing shop in San Francisco.
  3. My photo book collection, over 200 volumes (about 1/2 were monographs, many autographed), were dispersed over the years - some sold, many given to the library, others given to people who would appreciate them including a buddy who lived in the same town that I had gone to college with.

When giving these out I made sure the recipients understood I didn’t want to throw these things out, but I would never ask them what they did with the items and that they were free to dispose of the items as they wished. I didn’t want my stuff to be a burden on them. I went through all that when my mother died.

Do I miss any of it? Only occasionally - when there is something I want to look up but no longer have the book at hand. Or I think I would enjoy listening to a particular recording again - but the next day I doesn’t even cross my mind.

In the end, I am glad I lightened my load. And it will make things as simple as possible when I go.

My 2nd passion (after photography) is genealogy. I’m blessed (and cursed) to have 1000’s of family images dating back to the late 1800’s. I am in the year’s long process of digitizing and archiving. The old portraits taken at different stages of life are wonderful. The family snapshots are intriguing and can provide insights into more than just the vitals of an ancestor’s life. The very best, and most valuable, are those that have stories attached - even a few sentences. That’s how I know my great, great grandfather boarded a ship in 1904, travelled to South Africa to help start a school. While he was there, he took photos of the landscape (nothing special), friends he made and people he met, including a few “Zulu Warriors.” (that is what he called them)
So I think those that are saving a selection of favorites, accompanied by the story of the image are doing something wonderful for their families and descendants. And it’s what I’m doing. For those family members who value a connection with their history, it will be better than gold. :slightly_smiling_face:

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