Save Your Photos!

Episode 09

Cathi Nelson:  We thought, "Well, what do we do to help people be prepared before a disaster strikes?"

Once you know that your pets and your family members are safe, the thing that most people are most devastated about losing is their family photo collection, videos, or we call it now keepsake memorabilia items, whether it's a wedding dress or your baby's first shoes or things like that.

Those are the things that at the end of the day, if you had a list, what you would not want to lose, those are usually high on the list. So how do we help people do something before so that they're prepared in case of a disaster? And so that's where the idea of Save Your Photos Month came from.

Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent and I'm also your podcast host. This month we're talking about saving our photos.

I had a great conversation with Cathi Nelson of The Photo Managers where we talked about the ABCs of photo organizing, when it's okay to break the rules of photo organizing, and what one can do to prepare their photos for natural disasters, which was the seed for Save Your Photos Month, an international effort to provide free education around photo preservation.

Our guest, Cathi Nelson, is the founder of Save Your Photos Month, which happens annually in September. Cathi is a CEO, author, and speaker, but most importantly, she's passionate about helping people organize their photos so they can share their photo legacy. In 2009, she founded the Photo Managers, the leading organization serving entrepreneurs through training, a professional certification program, best practices, and a code of ethics that sets high standards for the rapidly growing photo management industry. She's been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Real Simple Magazine and the Wall Street Journal about organizing and preserving your family heritage's legacy through photos.

All right. Hi, Cathi.

Cathi Nelson:  Excited to be here.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. Thank you so much for joining us. Before we dive into all things photo management, I just want to ask how you're

Cathi Nelson:  Oh, I'm doing great. It's a little bit of a gray August day here in Connecticut, but August is a fun month, so all is well.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I know August must be very full for you. And we'll talk a little bit more about why in a little bit. But, I wanted to ask a little about the ABCs of photo organizing. A couple of podcasts ago, I interviewed another Photo Manager from your community, Courtney Plaster, and she mentioned the ABCs of photo organizing, but I was wondering if you could tell our listeners a little more about where the ABCs came from and break down the process in more

Cathi Nelson:  I'd It's amazing. It's taken on a life of its own, I see others know, quoting it quite a bit. Clients were hiring me to create photo albums for them to tell their family stories. I realized I needed to have a format in place to help them decide and to help me decide which photos would we include. And that's in anything that you're doing around photos, right? We all take just way too many photos. This I created initially with analog photos, but the concept works just as well, I think, with digital photos.

So the idea was I needed an acronym to make it easy for me to explain to people what it was that I'm trying to accomplish. And so that's where the ABCs came up with. So the A idea is when you're going through your photos, picture, you know, you have a big box of photos that you've inherited or of your own family photos that have ended up in, you know, a lot of times they're still in the envelopes that you picked them up when they got - is to have like a set up a series of bins or things like that and label them A, B, C and, the S, which I'll talk about here in a second.

So the question you want to ask yourself when you're looking at your photos is, "Is this photo an A photo? Is an album worthy? Is it archival worthy? Is it the best of the best?" Right? So that's like your A photo.

Now, if you're like most people and myself included, it's really hard to decide between photos that look alike. If it's an A photo, which one is the A photo? So that's where I came up with the idea of the B photos. That doesn't mean they're not good photos. And it doesn't always mean they're just second best, but they mean they're the ones that maybe, you know, that you still can't part with. Because in a second I'll talk about the C, which is you can throw photos away in the can.

So the B photos become the ones that you're not ready to maybe dispose of, you may want to go back to them someday and look at them again. They still have value. So those go in your B pile or your B box. And those photos, I always recommend, those are the photos that you want to leave a note, if you put them in a photo safe box or whatever container you put them in and say, "Whoever opens this box after I've passed away, you have my permission to throw these photos away, I could not bring myself to do it."

Because that's another problem that so many people come up against, right? They inherit photos and they just keep passing them along.

They don't feel comfortable disposing of photos and they don't know who the people are and things. So in some ways you can alleviate the guilt that the person might feel, but you also know, maybe it just helps for you peace of mind knowing that you have these B photos.

We recommend though, that when it comes to digitizing and scanning photos, you definitely want to scan the A photos and you may not want to invest the money in scanning the B photos.

Maybe you do, but if you have a large photo collection and you're trying to figure out how much everything costs to digitize it, maybe make sure that those A photos are the ones that are digitized. And the B, maybe you will, maybe you won't, in any way, and if you don't, because that brings me to the C photos.

And those are the ones that yes, you can throw photos away. And in a minute, I'll talk more about that. But then the S stands for though, the S photo is, does the photo tell a story? We take photos to tell the stories of our lives. We're a people of stories, we tell stories.

Tonight at dinner, I'm going to tell a story about what my day was like. My husband's going to tell me a story. It's always in story format, and once we got access to cameras, I think as human beings, we just tell a lot about our experiences in the course of a day through photos and videos and things like that.

Of course, that's increased dramatically since now we have a phone in our hand at all times so that's become our point and shoot. But even today, my husband just went and looked at, my son's getting married, he looked at the wedding venue. We wanted to remember what the wedding and he just sent me a bunch of photos and videos, so today it's amazing today how we have access to videos and photos in an instant.

Those would probably be C photos, right? Those are the ones I should delete those. I should not keep those photos in my camera because he happened to go down there today, because hopefully we'll just have the photos when the actual wedding takes place.

So the C is yes, you can throw photos away. And especially when you're looking at a lifetime collection of printed photos, how do people make a decision? Like what photos do I throw away?

People that are listening and maybe I can even ask you, Amanda, why is it do you think that people are hesitant to throw photos away? And what is it that causes that hesitancy to use the delete experience?

Amanda Meeks: That's a great question. I can speak from my own experience of that, but I like keeping a catalog of my experiences and being able to reference things and go back and say, "Where was I that one day that I did X," or if I have food photos, for example, " What did I order that was so amazing at that restaurant while I was on vacation?"

And like, nobody needs to see my food photos, but I think it's the ability to go back and reference things. And your example of the wedding venue is perfect for that too, because that's a reference photo, that's not necessarily sentimental. It's not necessarily like something that you need long term.

For me, I have a bad memory. I think that's like what it comes down to. I want to be able to flip through my phone and remember like, "Oh yeah, there is a thing that I took a funny screenshot of two years ago" and be reminded of that. But long term value, yeah, it doesn't have a lot of long term value.

Cathi Nelson:  And it's interesting because with digital photos, it's digital data, right? So it's in the cloud, but physical analog photos actually take up physical space. And if you don't curate your analog collection, it's really overwhelming and you don't have the ability like to quickly access a photo that if you knew you, you wanted a pictures of a meal you had in Italy and you could easily find that by just using the search part to tell us all that. But with analog photos, we don't have that ability. Right?

When I talk about the C, a lot of times I would help people think these are the photos I suggest you throw away.

First thing is go through and get rid of all the blurry and the poorly composed photos. We always have many of those, there's no reason to keep them. So that alone is a big process. And you definitely don't want to send those and have those photos scanned. So you don't want to just send the whole box of everything that you've ever taken, because you're just going to recreate digitally the same mess that you had in analog photos.

That's the first pass. The second one is, things like, I always say like the sunsets. Maybe keep 1 or 2 sunset photos that you care about, but you don't need to keep every sunset photo.

Travel photos, in particular, a lot of times we take pictures of historical sites and things like that, which is really fun. I don't want to ever take away from the art and creativity of what you're doing when we're taking photos, maybe find two or three photos of the Grand Canyon that you care about.

Keep the people pictures that you have of family and friends and different things that you experience that with, but it's okay to throw away you know, the pictures of the Grand Canyon or the Coliseum or things like that. I think over time, just one or two. We don't need all the number of photos that we tend to take.

We always say, like the 80 20 rule, if you get your photo collection down to your 20% best photos and eliminate the 80%, you have a much better chance of enjoying those photos in the future and also sharing them with future family members who want to see all those photos.

Most people don't want to see your entire photo collection, but they will want to see the 20%, especially those that tell the story. So those S photos. So you may look at a photo and it's a picture of your home growing up, there's a big fir tree in front of it. That photo could have great significance if you also have a photo of the home 30 years earlier with and it was like a little sapling. Those are stories that matter and you as the visual person looking at those photos understand that. So those are the S photos.

It wasn't just A, B, C, and then it ends. I always thought the S piece was really critical because the photos that tell the story really matter and you want to make sure that those photos are included in those A photos.

So hopefully that gives like, an idea of how I view the ABCs of photo organizing.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I really love that. I don't think we talked about the story piece of it when I talked with Courtney and I think that that is a very essential piece of this. It's something that our members are especially concerned with since, we're working with the digital realm and so, a lot of the time, our members are wondering how or what they need to digitize.

So that I think is really good guidance around how you get to the point where you're even ready to digitize anything. You have to go through the process of sorting them and deciding which ones are those keepers, the 20%, and which ones tell the story.

Cathi Nelson:  And some ways to do that, I tell people, put on some really nice music. Usually about an hour or two is the most people want to do something like this especially if they have a lifetime photo collection. You didn't create all those photos in a lifetime (weekend), so you're not going to go through and decide this in a weekend, right? So it can be a long process.

So to give people permission to know that it takes time and emotions will arise up. It is very emotional to look at old photos, a lot of feelings of nostalgia. You're going to get lost in memories. That's where professionals can come in and really kind of help with the process because they're not as attached emotionally.

Amanda Meeks: So when people are managing their print or digital collections, it helps to have some structure or rules, which the ABCs is a perfect example of that. Are there instances where breaking the rules of organizing and managing would be appropriate?

Cathi Nelson:  Yeah, so I call it the breaking the rules because I've worked with thousands of people over many years in this process and I noticed that a lot of people get hung up in the process, because we think that your photo collection needs to be in chronological order. But like I say to people, we live in chronological time order, like today happens to be a Wednesday that we're doing this interview, and so that means tomorrow is Thursday, it's August, September's coming, I mean, we know the timeline of life.

But we remember and experience memories more thematically. So if you did not keep your printed analog photo collection in date order and that's why you're unable to make this decision. Like you're worried, like " I don't want to scan this photo of Johnny when he was five, because maybe he's seven." And so people get really stuck.

So I say you can break the rules in that case, when you want to think about what are the themes of your life in terms of a way to think about your photo collection. As humans we take photos a lot of times around things that we care most about. So, what do I mean by that? Usually, vacations, right? Are you a family that loved to travel? You probably took your camera with you on vacations. Are you a family that had rituals and celebrated like holiday themed celebrations? Did you celebrate Christmas or Christmas morning? What was Christmas morning like? Does everybody wear matching pajamas over the years and you have those photographs? Or are you a family that loved Halloween and so you decorated your house crazy for Halloween?

I mean, there's just so many times that different families have events that they care deeply about and we usually will photograph those. So think about those themes of your life.

All those different experiences are the themes of your life. And so you can organize your photos thematically, as opposed to in chronological order. So it's much more interesting to view, even in Permanent and things like that, your photo collection especially if you're having trouble adding the dates so it's not sorted by date order, because you don't know.

We're a family that love to celebrate birthdays say for instance and every year, you know We have the same cake. And it's so it doesn't matter if you're looking at a birthday photograph of Johnny when he's 7 and suddenly he's 15. It's actually really interesting to see it that way than it is to always see things in chronological order.

So that's what I mean when I say break the rules and I've seen for a lot of people It's been a like a light bulb moment of like, "Oh, okay. I can do this now because I'm not feeling so concerned that I don't have my photos in chronological order because I wasn't careful for many years and I just dumped them in boxes and things." It's better to get those photos digitized and into a long term storage where you can access them and share them into future generations than it matters if they're in perfect chronological order.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that's a great example. And one of the things that I always recommend when we've done workshops with our members and stuff around their photo collections is coming up with a system that works for them. I think this idea of a thematic system is really beautiful, and you're right, that is kind of how our human brains and memories work, so I really love that advice and that method.

Cathi Nelson:  Great. Yeah. And it definitely can help people that are frozen in the process because of the concern that they're not putting it in some kind of order. And that's a rule that is breakable.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, yeah, it's perfect.

So we are, of course, super excited about Save Your Photos Month, which is coming up. It's all of September and Permanent is one of the sponsors for that. So I wanted to talk a little bit about that and see if you wouldn't mind sharing where this event originated and what one might expect if our members attend, for example.

Cathi Nelson:  We'd love to have them attend. Yeah. So Save Your Photos Month, which is more and more relevant every minute, especially this summer with the extreme weather.

So we started Save Your Photos Month, I think it was 9 years ago when Hurricane Sandy came up the East Coast, for those that remember. And then there was significant flooding in British Columbia in Calgary, there was like heavy rains and serious flooding. And then there were also quite a few tornadoes in the middle of the country. And we had our annual conference that spring and we had different people speak about their experiences, helping people find and manage their photos, those that had been flooded through Hurricane Sandy, those had photos that had flown away hundreds of miles and found after the tornadoes. And then also, we had members who rescued photos again from the flooding that had happened.

And so we did a conversation about that. And then everybody was so concerned. We thought, "Well, what do we do to help people be prepared before a disaster strikes?"

Once you know that your pets and your family members are safe, the thing that most people are most devastated about losing is their family photo collection, videos, or we call it now keepsake memorabilia items, whether it's a wedding dress or your baby's first shoes or things like that.

Those are the things that at the end of the day, if you had a list, what you would not want to lose, those are usually high on the list. So how do we help people do something before so that they're prepared in case of a disaster? And so that's where the idea of Save Your Photos Month came from.

First, it was Save Your Photos Day, and it was the last Saturday of September and we did workshops all around the country. So professional photo organizers would do workshops and have people bring photos, and it was free. So the goal has always been it's free. And it's meant to educate people about things that they can do. What we found, as human beings, we tend not to respond well to negative kind of messaging like, " Be prepared in case a disaster strikes."

So over the years, we've kind of expanded it significantly. Now we do mini video courses, so it's all free classes. There are many members and maybe in your area that are doing local presentations and things like that. But each week, we release 10 to 12 mini classes around different themes. They're free, you're able to watch them through the month of September and then they go away at the end of October.

But all sorts of different topics that you can dip in and out of. And then we have panel discussions that are live, and every Wednesday we do Cathi's Pics live where we interview different people.

So it's just a whole month of great information. Everything from what to do in case a disaster comes, but also like how do photos spark joy? What are some fun ideas that you can do around your photo collection that you may not have thought of?

There's all sorts of different ways that we help you engage with your photos. You know, I think about what just happened right now. It's heavy on my mind because it's in the news constantly is what happened in Maui and those poor, you know, horrific situation of the fires there.

If people had not digitized their photo collections, and not only was there a great loss of life, but there's also, unfortunately, probably a great loss of visual heritage that was probably burned in those situations.

And really the importance of digitizing your collection and then getting them stored in a safe place like Permanent is really critically important today. We don't know what weather events going to come to anywhere we live in the world at this point I think.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, and with the weather extremes and natural disasters being so rampant, as you pointed out, what specifically can people do to protect their personal files and memorabilia?

Cathi Nelson:  Yeah. I mean, I think the number one thing is with photos and videos is to get them converted to a digital file format and then make sure that you have them, we recommend the 3-2-1 backup. So that means you have 3 copies of your materials stored in at least 2 different places, 1 recommending the cloud and then 1 offsite. But an external hard drive is considered a good backup. So not only do you want them in the cloud, but you do want them on an external hard drive, then one off site. So maybe you have it in a safe deposit box or you have a copy with your family members.

It's called redundancy and redundancy is key so that everything is in multiple places.

Now that can feel overwhelming to people like," How am I going to do that?" But that's where the ABCs come in. If you just get your A photos, at least that part is done. And the same thing with memorabilia, there's so many interesting products out there now that with your phone you could tell a story about an object, you can photograph it, you can add a QR code.

It's endless, the possibilities and some great technology out there. So if you kept your baby's first, I have my leather baby shoes when I was first learning to walk that my kids wore that I'm going to give to my grandchildren, they don't know that yet. But, there was a story around that, right?

Maybe photograph those and just tell a little story about that. So if they do get lost, there's a story that's been attached to that item and there's a visual documentation that that item existed.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I think you're right that the redundancy can feel overwhelming, but it is really helpful to point back to doing that process for the most important photos that tell the story of your life and of the things that are important to you.

Cathi Nelson:  And peace of mind. I just did, so I mentioned my son's getting married. So, this is typical. We know as professional photo organizers that usually it requires, like, a trigger event for people to really pay attention to these things. So sometimes it's a wedding, an anniversary, a recent cancer diagnosis or Alzheimer's, you know, something that happens.

An elderly aunt of mine is turning 90. And my son just made a video montage of her life to music and things like that. But what I just did, and it's a major piece of mine. I was a scrapbooker and all of my children's photos are in scrapbook photo albums that were sitting on my shelf at high risk of any kind of like even a spill or something. And so I finally invested the money to have them digitized. My goal is to reprint them into digital photo books and give each kid one.

I mean, I have a lot of things I'm going to do, but I haven't done that yet. It's just like a sense of peace in my mind, knowing that no matter what happens, they've been digitized and they're safe.

Just to remind people of that just the peace of mind, even though it feels overwhelming to think about it, the peace of mind you'll feel once it's done is really great.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, and even just taking that first step. It's actually really helpful to hear a super professional photo organizers, like, "I have a to do list that I'm still working through." You never reach the point of being done.

Cathi Nelson:  No. And now that I'm really learning how to use facial recognition and things, I got to go in and add more facial recognition. It's never going to be done. And you know, I keep taking photos, right? Life is going to keep happening and photos are going to keep getting taken.

But I do have a plan and it is something that I work on, on a regular basis if I can.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, yeah, that plan is key. Thank you for sharing that.

So my last question is, in your opinion, what makes personal photo collections worth preserving for the future and why does this matter?

Cathi Nelson:  Oh my goodness. Like I mentioned, as human beings, we're people of stories and not everybody has the same interest in the stories, but I wish now, the older I get, the more questions I wish I asked my grandparents. There's stories that I don't have access to anymore.

My dad has passed away. My brother is now gone. I wish that I had interviewed my brother. I wish I had his voice. I do have saved actually, on my phone of where he sang me happy birthday. And I can pull it up. I've never deleted this message, even though I know it's saved up in the cloud as well, but I keep it on my phone from 2014.

I can get emotional just thinking about that. So that's why. The meaning of our lives is experiences and relationships, I believe. We know that these are the things that can bring us joy. It can bring us sadness. Again, I don't want to overlook the fact that there's sadness in life and things like that. But at the same time, it's our legacy. I existed, I was here, and there are future generations that are going to care about that. There's no question.

So I'm an identical twin, so my sister is not as interested in photos as I am, never has been. So there is going to be somebody always in the family that may not care, but I promise you there's many many people in the family that do care. And a lot of people will say, "Well, how do I know people care about my photos in the future, this generation doesn't seem to care," they may not care right now, but I promise you they will care. Because, again, it's part of our human desire to understand who am I, where did I come from and photos and videos are the ways that we tell those stories.

Amanda Meeks: Beautifully said. Thank you so much, Cathi.

Cathi Nelson:  Yeah, it was wonderful. Thank you.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Our Digital Futures. I hope you enjoyed our conversation on saving our photos. It can be difficult to know where to start with photo organizing and preservation projects, but we hope you got some helpful tips and inspiration from this episode.

If you're ready to learn more, head over to the Photo Managers page for Save Your Photos Month and register for the free workshops and talks given by experts from all over. And if you're curious about how Permanent can help you save your photos, check out our website or get in touch with us.

The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a non profit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations.

Our web and mobile app is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription fees. Your generous donations to our endowment ensure long term sustainability as an organization while also securing your own legacy.

Special thank you to our editor, Emily Sienkiewicz.


Cathi Nelson headshot

Cathi Nelson

Cathi Nelson is a CEO, author, and speaker, but most importantly, she's passionate about helping people organize their photos, so they can share their photo legacy. In 2009 she founded The Photo Managers, the leading organization serving entrepreneurs through training, a professional certification program, best practices, and a code of ethics that sets high standards for the rapidly growing photo management industry. She's been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Real Simple Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal about organizing and preserving your family heritage's legacy through photos.


Amanda Meeks headshot

Amanda Meeks


Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.