I have no good answer for the question posed in the title of this post. But I've been thinking a lot about it lately. The first time I ever stopped to think about what to do with one's photographic archives was back in 1990. I blogged about this story back in 2013, but I want to return to it now, as it is a good lead-in to upcoming posts that I will write about concerning this topic.
A couple of days after moving into our house, I saw a moving van parked across the street. Two men were taking out all the furniture from a house whose elderly owner had died a few weeks before. Her relatives had sold the entire contents of the house to an estate buyer, and they had come to empty it out.
Among the items lined up for removal was what I recognized as a standing slide file cabinet. Because I was badly in need of one at that point in time, I went across the street to take a closer look. I saw that each drawer was labeled with the locations and dates of what clearly had been trips the deceased had taken. "Nepal, 1972", "California, 1958", "Canada, 1966". I pulled open one of the drawers, and there they were, slide after slide after slide of this woman's life in pictures. I realized with a start that no one wanted them, that they were going to be thrown away, as if those trips and that woman's life had never happened. There was an entire life's history there, and it was going to be tossed. The realization made me feel awful.
The movers asked me if I wanted the cabinet, telling me to just make an offer and I could have it, as it would be one less thing for them to move. But I couldn't.
I knew that if I bought it, I would be the one to throw away those slides, and even if I filled it up and used it for years, the memory of her slides and her forgotten life would linger on. And so would the guilt I would feel.
I know that my potential sense of guilt wasn't rational. But that incident started me thinking about how we deal (or don't) with the photographic records of our lives. What do I want to save for future generations- my artwork, my family photos, both? Will future generations even care? Should my records be saved in print or digitally? Who archives them? Where will they be housed?
I'm working on the answers to these questions because I want to consciously decide what happens to my own archive of creative work. I want to make sure that it will live on in some fashion. And I don't want my printed photographs and hard drives out on the curb one day, waiting for the trash collector, just because I couldn't make a decision about what to do with them.
All artists are faced with this question, and all of us answer it in different ways. But it is important to come up with some kind of answer, if we don't want to see our work disappear from the face of the earth at the same time that we do.