Combing Through Thousands of Digital Images, These Photo Organizers Help to 'Tell Your Life Story'

Marci Brennan/Courtesy Past Present Pix

"You can’t tell a life story or family history with 60,000 photos."

In the year 2000, Kodak made what seemed at the time like a shocking revelation. Around the globe, amateur photographers had taken a combined 80 billion photos, a new record. But fast forward just two decades and that number seems almost quaint. According to estimates by market research firm InfoTrends, we’ve produced a staggering 1.2 trillion photos last year. That’s enough for every single human being on the planet to take 159 photos each.

But what happens to all those photos? They might get shared on social media, or texted to friends or family, or included on a Christmas card. But the vast majority are floating in limbo, stored in cloud sites, hard drives, old memory cards, and smartphones. 

Marci Brennan/Courtesy Past Present Pix 

“People accumulate photos like they accumulate stuff,” says the New York-based Marci Brennan. “But photos are more insidious in a way because they’re not visible. You don’t realize there’s a problem until you try finding a specific photo and it dawns on you that your photo collections are chaos.”

That’s where Brennan comes in. Since 2016, the longtime digital photo expert—she’s worked for Corbis, Bill Gates’ photo licensing firm, for 18 years—has worked as a professional photograph organizer. She visits the homes of clients and goes through their massive archives of photos, both physical and digital, paring down their untenable collection of over-documented life events to something manageable. 

Kate Jacus/Courtesy The Photo Curator 

It might sound silly in theory. Isn't getting rid of photos as easy as hitting the delete button on your phone? That might’ve been the case just ten years ago, when the iPhone was still in its infancy and the ability to take 100 photos a second was still a novelty.

“At the time, no one was really thinking, ‘Oh my God, I'm taking too many photos!’” says videographer Chris George, Brennan’s business partner and a former art production director at Vanity Fair. “We were just excited with the technology. No one thought, what's going to happen to all these photos in ten years? Much less, how many useless photos will we have in fifty years?”

The answer to that question is, way too many. Kate Jacus, a New York photo organizer who’s worked in collections at two Smithsonian museums, says it isn’t unusual for her meetings with new clients to get comical. She recalls one woman who asked for her help and kept bringing out more and more devices. 

Kate Jacus/Courtesy The Photo Curator

“She had seven laptops, five phones, four tablets, three external hard drives, three thumb drives, two cameras, and two memory cards,” Jacus says. Clients have also given her cardboard boxes overflowing with photos, plastic totes, shoe boxes, suitcases, and yellowing magnetic albums. “One client gave me over fifty slide carousels,” she says.

Photo organizers don’t just move your photos into specific collections. They remove duplicates, scan photos that haven’t yet been digitized, file and categorize by year or life event, and (for an extra price) do custom color correcting and restoration/retouching. 

The reasons people seek out photo organizers aren't just because they don’t have the time to sort through old photos. Increasingly, people are realizing that photos are their connection to the past, and they’ve put too much focus on quantity over quality. 

“Photos matter,” says Cathi Nelson, the CEO and founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers, which has over 700 members in eight countries. “They provide access to the past, reconnecting you with memories. People are deeply moved and thrilled to discover photos they haven’t seen in decades. Five years ago, people acted confused when I told them what we do. Today, everyone says, ‘I need you!’” 

Marci Brennan/Courtesy Past Present Pix 

Peter Bennett, a photo organizer in Los Angeles—he once ran a professional photo agency—says we’ve been culturally conditioned to take countless photos on our phone without ever questioning this behavior. “But you can’t tell a life story or family history with 60,000 photos,” he says. “Your kids will hate you if you try to pass that down to them. If you don’t develop an emotional connection to your family photos, they start to lose their meaning and significance. The quantities we are dealing with are starting to damage our ability to retain family histories and pass them on.” A 2013 study from Fairfield University found that taking too many photographs can even impair our memories, making us remember fewer details about important life events we experienced first-hand.

Bennett isn’t looking for repeat customers. His goal is to teach clients how to get better at being discerning about their photos, deleting as many photos as they take. “I like to tell people they need to start being the editors of their own life story,” he says. “It’s the only story they are uniquely qualified to tell.”