A couple years ago I was forwarded an email to query if I wanted to participate in a photo archive sort. A long-time photographer had become ill and his wife was looking to dispose of nearly 100,000 slides he had created over many years of personal photography. Now, when I say "dispose" I mean discard into the trash, at least according to the wife's email. However, she was open to somebody "who knows photography" going through the slides to pick out the best ones which she would then turn over to one of those stock photo agencies to sell for her.
There were a couple of bad signs to all of this. First, no one can appreciate the value of photos like the original author, so the only possible benefit others could bring to the sorting table would be evaluation based on the technical merit of the photos. But when we try to reduce a photo down to its technical merits, a great deal of meaning is lost. Photographs made for personal reasons, as was the case with this photographer, tend to be very personal works of creativity that have meaning that can't be quantified by others.
As for selecting photos from this gentleman's archive for the stock photography market, it would be a guess at best of what might sell as stock, and I highly doubt any microstock experts were called in, so I sincerely doubt any money was eventually generated from his archive in that manner. If many of his photos went off to the microstock gristmill, they contributed to the shear volume of microstock that has enabled licensing agencies to sell at ultra low prices in pursuit of the volume sales which benefits the agencies. But that's a discussion for another time.
Another bad sign was the recruiting of people to sort the archive who "know photography". To this day I can't imagine how knowing photography qualifies anyone to curate a photo archive. At best, such persons might appreciate good composition, but does that make them the best people to select keepers and decide which will be exiled to the oblivion of the trash?
I tell you this story because this incident made me reflect on what might happen to my creative work, my photographs, if I should become ill one day. Now, if I kick off, I suspect I won't be all that concerned with such trivia as my earthly photos. But if I fall ill, who will safeguard my treasures?
And treasures they are, as I am sure you can agree when considering your own photos. Our photos are treasures for many reasons. The first reason that comes to mind is that they can't be replicated. Not by the original photographer, nor by anyone else. Each photo is a "one-off", never to be replicated. By this I don't mean mechanically copied. I mean taken again with a camera. There are a multitude of details that all contribute to each photo - the light intensity and color and angle. Also the composition, the exposure settings and other camera-related settings. No photo will ever be taken precisely the same twice.
The second reason I would like to offer is because our photos are works of creativity. They require a certain level of skill to make, and that skill is developed over a period of time, often years or decades. Such skill seldom comes easy. You can't inherit it, or buy it or borrow it. This skill exists in several areas such as composition, exposure, camera operation and other photo "making" skills that take time and practice to improve. Being able to "see" a photo before you take the shot is also a skill that, while hard to quantity, is there more or less with every person who uses a camera.
Then there is the work that goes into post-processing at the personal computer, file management (which is a skill in its own right), portfolio presentation and management, licensing, print sales and other "distribution" disciplines. These days I fully understand that each click of the shutter adds to my photo work - but I click anyway. I enjoy the entire process - from click to print. And as such, each step in the workflow is part of my story of each photo.
The above are just three reasons why our photos are personal treasures, at least as I see it. They are creative works, it requires skill and knowledge to consistently create good photos and they require work to process, present, manage and protect from loss. This then raises the question as to why we put ourselves through all this just for a bunch of photos. Well, I've wondered that on numerous occasions, as I'm sure you have. I think of it as creating good memories.
I remember my good photos. I can "see" my successful photos in my mind. I remember where I was when the photo came into existence. I remember the intention I had for the photo. I recall the delicious challenges I had taking the shot. I remember the scene because I examined the scene for purposes of the photo. I have come to accept that I will remember my best photos for as long as I have a functioning memory. This makes photography a very personal activity that leads to photos being long remembered. This is why I pursue photography - to bring wonderful memories into my life experience in the form of images that have a back-story that is meaningful to me. Memories that are all mine, created by me for me.
The lady with the photo archive overload got me to reflect on the personal value of my photos. For as long as I am able, I will treat my photo archive with respect for the value it brings to me, because I know that my photos can't possibly mean as much to anyone else as to myself.
When I'm not as mobile and a bit over the hill
and you think I've forgotten all those exposures,
please just bring me some water and another pill
and let me enjoy the memories of my treasures.
P.S. I declined any participation in the sorting of this photographer's archive because, frankly, I didn't agree with how his archive was being handled.