Discover more from Your House Machine
3 steps to conquer the psychic weight of your iPhone photos
I don't look at them, but I know they're there and I can't stand it.
Quick PSA: Substack wants me to pass along the message that if you keep missing this newsletter in your inbox, try dragging it from the “Promotions” tab into your “Primary” tab.
I’m not going to pretend I’ve solved this problem. I have some solution-esque approaches that seem promising, but I’m opening this week’s topic up for input from you clever readers.
The issue at hand? The 20,000+ photos on my phone.
I think about how I have maybe 100 photos of my entire childhood, and then compare that to the 100 photos I took this week alone of my kids. If there’s any unambiguous indication we live in an age of excess, our photo habit is it.
And yet, it’s so hard to declutter them, isn’t it? They don’t take up physical space so is it reeeeeeally a problem? Each photo holds a memory. Pressing delete on your kid’s face (or the face of someone you love) is painful. It feels like if you delete a photo you are deleting the memory.
Thanks for reading Your House Machine! Subscribe for free to learn more about things like the pain you’re causing yourself with your photo habit.
But as with all excess, the problem is that when you have too much of something it becomes impossible to enjoy it.
Do I scroll affectionately through old photos.…ever? No. It’s overwhelming to crack open the archives, and frankly most of my photos are not good, so I don’t do it. (Sorting through photos of whiteboards at work, plants that look cool, and screenshots of package tracking numbers is decidedly Not Fun.)
I imagine that in my old age I’ll spend leisurely days going through my photos. Will I actually do this? Who knows. But saving things (and paying extra for 2TB of iCloud storage) for a future version of yourself that may or may not materialize seems silly.
Knowing I have this massive blackbox photo collection hovering in the background of my life causes me low-level stress. What is in there? What if I lost it all? What if I never find the really special photos amid the clutter?
I have made valiant efforts in the past. I used to make a photo book at the end of each calendar year with highlights from the year. I did this from 2008 - 2014, but then as iPhone cameras improved, each year’s photo collection got so big the software simply couldn’t handle it anymore. So no more photo books.
But the photo collection just keeps growing, so I’ve started a new photo organizing project. Here are the principles:
Look at them. Photos are meant to be looked at and enjoyed. I need to find ways to get eyeballs on photos. And having ten hundred million of them makes them harder to look at.
Simplify. I don’t feel distraught that there are only 100 photos of my childhood. Thus, I do not need 5 versions of the same moment with my kid — I should choose the best photo and move on. If it’s not a photo I that makes me emotional, then I will delete it. Cluttering my phone or photo album with thousands of mediocre photos makes it harder to find, notice and enjoy the one outstanding one.
People, not landscapes. I will never want to revisit a photo of fireworks from 5 years ago, or that one cool sunset. No one cares, so stop taking these photos (this is something I scream to myself inside my head regularly). I can Google a cool sunset if I really want a photo of one…but why would I? If you’re an artist and this is your medium, then fine. But otherwise, what are you doing??
With these principles in place, here’s the gameplan (none of these recommendations is sponsored):
Monthly photobooks - I signed up with Chatbooks, an app that prompts you each month to choose 30 photos from your phone (costs $10/mo). They print and mail you a little photo book. It doesn’t take much time and I’ve been able to stick with it for about 2 years now. What to do once I have dozens of these little books? Not sure, but for now we really love randomly picking up a book and reminiscing.
Large event photo albums - Only 2 years after our wedding, my husband and I finally made our wedding album with Artifact Uprising, the same company we use for holiday cards. It was super easy and the finished product is GORGEOUS. They often have promo codes, so search online for that. Now we might actually look at our wedding photos from time to time!
Daily pruning of photos - This one is the big lift (a big lift was gonna be inevitable with 20,000 photos). I got this idea from the interwebs somewhere. Each day you search your iPhoto library for today’s date (e.g., Aug 25) and prune the photos that come up from all prior years. For me this is often 150-200 photos to go through. But the good news is that in future years this gets much easier since your backlog will shrink.
A side benefit (a positive externality, as the economists say) of all this pruning and preening is that you encode into your brain the pain of taking too many photos. I find myself less likely to pick up my phone every time my kid does something cute. The cute bar is much higher, and I make sure to just take ONE photo. I also have stopped photographing any kind of scenery, because I experience every day that I utterly do not care about that cool view 3 years in the future.
I will confess I do not do item #3 every single day. But I’ll generally do several days at once, and then take a break for a few days, then go back to it. It’s been a couple of months and I’m still at it, and the digital decluttering really does feel good.
Now you! Please share your photo decluttering tricks — not to be presumptuous, but I think we collectively need as much advice as we can get.
For instance, I’m interested to hear if anyone has found a great way to use iPhone photo albums. I have several but know I could be doing more clever things with them.