Earlier this year a lot of my irreplaceable family photos went up in smoke at a storage unit. We need to take responsibility for our photographs while we can, to avoid those left behind having to do all the work

Of all the things I expected to wake up to on 1 January this year, it wasn’t the news that my late grandparents’ possessions had gone up in smoke. At around 7.45pm the night before, a fire broke out at the Shurgard storage facility in Purley Way, south London. By the early hours of New Year’s Day, the entire building – which housed 1,198 rented units – had been razed to the ground. Nothing was salvaged. We were luckier than many. Some lost every last belonging; others their livelihoods.

 

My grandfather died in 1995, and my grandmother (or, to be more accurate, my step-grandmother) continued living in their flat until 2016, when dementia meant she had to move into a nursing home. Not long after this, we sold the property, and my sister and I were tasked with sorting through two lifetimes’ worth of belongings. However, despite a long and respected career in politics, my grandmother had surprisingly few mementos of it. My grandfather had been a wonderful artist. Fortunately, over the years, a number of his paintings had been distributed around our small family. But it’s the two self-portraits, which were in the storage unit, that I will miss the most.

Sort out your photos for posterity
While my sister and I found ourselves capable of being reasonably dispassionate about what would go into the Shurgard unit and what would go to house clearance once we’d packed up the flat, it was the photographs that proved paralysing. Early on in the first day, I set aside a small bundle of black & white prints, which I took home to scan. These formed only a tiny portion of what was to come. Shortly after, we uncovered boxes and boxes and boxes of prints that we simply didn’t know what to do with. Not to mention the hundreds of small, rectangular plastic containers that housed thousands of 35mm colour slides. We opened one or two of them, but no more. Overwhelmed by this point, we added it all to the pile of items for the removal men to take to the storage unit. We’d deal with them ‘one day’.

While my sister and I found ourselves capable of being reasonably dispassionate about what would go into the Shurgard unit and what would go to house clearance once we’d packed up the flat, it was the photographs that proved paralysing. Early on in the first day, I set aside a small bundle of black & white prints, which I took home to scan. These formed only a tiny portion of what was to come. Shortly after, we uncovered boxes and boxes and boxes of prints that we simply didn’t know what to do with. Not to mention the hundreds of small, rectangular plastic containers that housed thousands of 35mm colour slides. We opened one or two of them, but no more. Overwhelmed by this point, we added it all to the pile of items for the removal men to take to the storage unit. We’d deal with them ‘one day’.

But it wasn’t our job to deal with them. It should have been up to my grandparents. Why hadn’t they sorted through the prints and slides, kept a handful that were meaningful, put them in an album and ditched the rest? I was left asking myself how much these pictures had actually meant to them. And if they didn’t mean anything to them, why should they mean anything to us? It may sound brutal, but living – as my sister, mother and I all do – in small flats, we aren’t in a position to keep stuff simply because the people those things belonged to are now gone.

So my message is this. If you have decades’ worth of disorganised photographs, go through them. Keep perhaps 1%, and chuck the rest. Because, should the unthinkable happen, and your offspring end up losing almost every one of those unsorted, unloved prints in deeply unpleasant circumstances, you might find their reaction is not one of grief, but relief.


Ailsa McWhinnie has worked in photography magazines for more than 25 years. She is Amateur Photographer’s co-features editor.


The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Amateur Photographer magazine or TI Media Limited