How I’m Bringing Order to Chaos By Scanning and Organizing My Photo Collection

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by Guest Writer
updated: February 17, 2024
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Guest Writer
February 17, 2024
The following is a guest contribution by Rob Meyer

I have always held onto things that memorialized moments of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, I would make sure to carefully store my grade school class pictures or baseball team pictures. They were important to me then and I knew that I should keep them safe. It took a few years for me to realize what service I had done myself by not letting these precious items get lost or thrown away. They are utterly priceless to me now.

After I joined the Navy, I would collect pictures from here or there but I also started what I call “I Love Me Books” which were 3-ring binders filled with certificates and letters of my Navy achievements. I wanted to have electronic versions of these binders but the huge undertaking of this seemed more than I cared to deal with. Somewhere in this time, I came across this “Scan Your Entire Life” website that gave me encouraging advice on scanning and organizing my photo collection. I decided to start scanning because one fire or flood could lose these things forever and I worked too hard for that.

The Binders

Starting in October 2014, I scanned everything in my binders. I was somewhat satisfied but I felt like the quality of the scans left much to be desired. I was able to use Adobe Photoshop to open up these scans of my certificates to fix things. A tear in the paper, coffee stain, mysterious spot, or any other aberration could be quickly dealt with. In the end, I could apply certain tones, contrast, or color corrections to give me a very nice result. When compared to the original scan, the final product looked 10 times better.

Unaltered Scanned Photo
Photoshopped “Color Corrected” Scanned Photo

Being the perfectionist I am, I decided I wanted every single scan to be cropped nicely with no aberrations. I wanted the colors to pop more and fix anything I didn’t like. Organizing and scanning is one thing, making corrections to each scan made the process 100 times longer. It took a couple of months but I managed to get all my binders done. Not only that, but I kept piling on more work. Random newspaper clippings were scanned and Photoshopped. Articles I wrote for my High School newspaper, college papers I kept and any random memento worth scanning got scanned and Photoshopped.

Now the Photos

I felt pretty good about what I had accomplished and I could have stopped there. I couldn’t though. I had thousands upon thousands of photographs that were begging to be scanned. These photos started in 2015 and are continuing through 2020. I scan pictures, number them, label them, and put them in folders on my computer. Simultaneously, I am taking the original hard copies of the photos and placing them in nice plastic cases in the same order as the electronic ones.

One of the reasons this process is taking so long is that I keep getting photos added to the collection. Many come from my mother and sister but quite a few come from an aunt who always had the forethought to take pictures at our Christmas gatherings. Without those precious photos, I would have huge gaps in my memories. This accumulation of photos (and the memories that go with them) is quite addicting and the more that I have, the more that I want.

There’s a bit of a rush when you study a photo and use your detective work to come up with a logical date for it. I’ve studied everything from my mother’s hairstyles, furniture, clothing, holiday decorations, toys that I had, and calendars on the wall. Being able to pop a previous mystery photo into my “Christmas 1984” folder is quite satisfying to me in a way that I don’t think most people would understand. 

I’ve always enjoyed bringing order to chaos and I think this is a necessary quality for an undertaking like this. My photo collection was one of the more chaotic things in my life. Most are not labeled. Sometimes I recognize people but I don’t know when and where so what do you do? You ask family for help but this raises other issues.

Some just don’t know and don’t care enough to spare a brain cell on the matter. Some want to help but end up guessing. Sometimes these guesses are all you have but these guesses don’t often stand up to other facts you’ve gathered. You have to trust but verify. Worse than that, is having a relative with hundreds of false memories who tell you things that never happened so you can’t fully trust what they say. Getting answers to mystery pictures can be maddening.

Why should I care if I can’t pin a photo down to 1981, 1982, or 1983? Well, it helps me organize them since I do it chronologically. I get immense satisfaction out of solving that mystery. Nobody else on the planet cares about that photo but me but that doesn’t matter. I love figuring out these photo memories because I can’t trust the memories bouncing around my head.

In a book I read called “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe,” I was enlightened about what it had to say about our memories:

Our memories aren’t accurate or passive recordings of the past. We don’t have squishy camcorders in our skulls. Memories are constructed from imperfect perceptions filtered through our beliefs and biases, and then over time they morph and merge. Our memories serve more to support our beliefs than to inform them. In a way, they are an evolving story we tell ourselves.

Memories are flawed from the moment we construct them, but they’re also unstable over time. Each time we recall a memory we are actually reconstructing and updating it. Memory, like perception, emphasized internal consistency. We alter memories to fit our internal narratives about reality, and as those narratives change, we update our memories to fit them.

You simply cannot trust your memories. My life experience of flawed memories has taught me that I cannot trust mine. I trust photographs and videos. Take my baseball team photograph, for example. If I hadn’t kept that all these years and referred back to it on occasion, I would have forgotten almost every one of those kids’ faces. Those faces matter to me even if I have no current relationship with any of them. A lot of people don’t get this. They think it’s a waste of time and effort to reconstruct memories. They believe that living in the past is unhealthy but I think forgetting the events of your life, even the mundane ones, is sad.

What About All These Film Negatives?

Oh, by the way, I have hundreds of negatives for these photos. Upon close inspection, many of these negatives don’t have corresponding photos. Now I need to buy a device that can convert these negatives into electronic photos I can use. They need to be labeled and put into the proper order in the proper photo folder. These all need to be Photoshopped too. I’ve just added dozens of hours to my crusade.  However, these negatives are very helpful. They help complete the big picture of an event. They provide an alternative to a ruined or low-quality photo. 

What I found especially helpful was that the negatives are numerically labeled and give you an exact order of when you took them. “Oh, these negatives prove that I went to visit the town of Colón, Panama before I went to the Panama Canal and not after. I’ll just renumber the pictures now to make them chronologically accurate now.” I love this process of instilling order. I don’t think I am obsessive-compulsive but this brings me such satisfaction.

Organizing Thousands Upon Thousands of Photos

One has to start somewhere, so I decided to start when I joined the Navy. I scanned and Photoshopped all of my basic training photos. After that was Aircrew School in Pensacola, FL. Then another school in Millington, TN. Then the next place, the place after that, and so on. I was organizing these photos based on where I was stationed. This is the easiest way for me to parse my past—by using geographic locations. That may not work for everybody but if you move around a lot, it works great and I believe that many people create chapters of their lives based on a location they lived. 

List of Microsoft Windows folders labeled in a geographical manner to aid in scanning and organizing my photo collection
Some of my Picture Folders—each has anywhere from less than 10 to several thousand

My 1st folder in this process is labeled “San Diego, CA 1- Basic Training.” The next one is labeled “Pensacola, FL 1- Aircrew School” and so on. If I revisit a place that’s worthy of its own folder, I will add a number to it as I did for San Diego and Pensacola. My 100+ list of folders have a “San Diego, CA 2” as well. I have modified this system a few times over the past few years and this is where I’ve landed. I could always change it again later and probably will.

Pictures at the Ready For Any Occasion

One advantage of doing all this work is the ability to quickly produce a picture for any reason. Maybe it’s Veteran’s Day and I want to post an old picture of a relative in uniform. Maybe I have a recently deceased pet and I want to put together a memorial for somebody who loved him. Maybe I just want to surprise a relative with revitalized pictures of them as a child. Not only do I have several possible pictures scanned and easy to find, but they also look very nice, full of vibrant color and life. 

I have surprised many friends and relatives over the past few years with emails full of pictures they long forgot about it. It’s a nice conversation starter—especially with folks that aren’t great at keeping in touch. Often they come back with an insight you never knew.

For those that are active on social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.), these pictures can be very interesting to others. It gives others an insight into you. In return, they may post pictures of their own and you can add these to your collection. Pictures of your past that come back to you that you forgot existed create a feeling of happiness. It’s nice to spread that happiness to others as well. You can even have fun with these photos and make some creative alterations.

A Finished Photo
A Photoshopped Creation

Will My Archival Project Ever End?

It’s hard to say when I will be done with all this. I have taken many different roads in reconstructing and chronicling my life. I’ve dealt with endless photos and film negatives. I’ve added videos to my folders that go with the pictures. In that endeavor, I had to transfer many videos from old VHS tapes to digital format. I had to learn how to edit them and find ways to make them neater.

I’ve had subscriptions to newspaper websites and found so much great information by doing searches of my name plus other relatives. My dad’s senior year basketball team went to state and I have all these articles talking about his performance with some great pictures too. I have marriage announcements, birth announcements, divorces, and obituaries. All of these things provide necessary information to data-hungry people like me.

Pictures from my Dad’s High School Basketball Days

I’ve dabbled into the genome side of my history. I ordered test kits for my mother, son, and me from 23andMe to trace my ancestry back over 275,000 years. I can see the long line of men from my paternal line and women from my maternal line and see where they migrated from. I can see how much French & German I have and was surprised with how much less Italian from what I always thought. I can even see how many Neanderthal variants I have in my DNA.

One of those “old pictures”

It’s not much of a jump to start looking at really old pictures of great grandparents and wondering who their parents were and their parents. This leads you into genealogy and you might find yourself putting together a family tree. That, in itself, can be a lifetime endeavor. I have dabbled in this recently and the rewards have been wonderful. I correspond with a woman in Italy who translated a 19th-century birth announcement from my great-grandmother, Secondine, who was the 2nd born of triplets.

As I solicit more pictures, more papers, and more data, I start to become the historian of my family. I am the go-to person for information on people and events that would eventually be lost. It’s a powerful feeling that few understand. These life moments that occurred before the digital age have a very limited shelf-life. We may be the last generation that has the ability or desire to transfer this data into digital formats for future generations to explore.

Now that I am down to less than 200 pictures to preserve, I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know, though, that the work will never truly end. As more pictures from the past make their way to me, I will continue to add them to my collection. Along with those, I will create many more from the present. I’m grateful that I started this “project” which is now a part of my life and it all started with your “Scan Your Entire Life” website. Thank you for the inspiration.

Very Respectfully,

Rob Meyer

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