|A photo I return to again and again...|
my grandmother with an unidentified little girl.
This topic actually gets very personal for me. My mother has a shoebox of nameless people from the early-twentieth century. These are presumably relatives who were scattered around the world or killed during the Holocaust. This makes the shoebox worth keeping...for now. We have a general idea about the subjects of the image. We know they were passed to my mother from her parents. We have a small bit of context, which is sometimes not the case with a shoebox of orphan photos.
There is talk in my family of using face recognition software to try to identify the people in the images. It would be exciting to find some answers. If we can't, perhaps a repository related to Poland or to the Holocaust would be interested in these images. Usually, realistically, Archives do not want orphan images. The millions and millions they can collect are virtually useless without information. Perhaps because I have some context, someone will want these images...but I am not sure if all of these photos are of people lost in the War. I'm not sure if they are relatives or acquaintances. How much information do these unlabeled images really give and how much context do they really hold?
Right now I have no information, but I have hope. Our family will keep this shoebox until we've exhausted the possibilities for identification. By the end of my lifetime, if we have not found family connections or the technology to help us identify people, surely I have given the search enough time. The next generation does not need a shoebox full of permanently lost information. The important thing is for me to label the images we know and to convey to my daughter what happened to her ancestors and why. I want to tell her the stories of her great grandparents who escaped from terror and spend my time recording the memories we have of them rather than holding out false hope that what cannot be found will turn up someday.
One thing struck me when reading comments from genealogists about keeping family photos. It often comes up as I move between the worlds of individuals with personal papers and families with personal papers. The professional archives can more easily turn away papers and orphan photos than families interested in history can release them. The repositories do not have a sentimental attachment. That distinction may seem obvious, but as a consultant, I must keep in mind that it makes it harder for clients to overcome hesitancies about getting rid of anything. In fact, genealogists are so well-versed with the search for information and the finding of unexpected threads that I can sincerely understand negative responses to the idea of "culling." However, there are images that one just will never be able to identify no matter how long one searches.
I want to tell you that there does come a time when you should let go. Eyes staring back at us from a printed sheet pull us in. Photographs have a unique ability to let us feel the humanity of their subject. It can be hard to break the attachment we feel with our heart. Let yourself accept that moment of letting go when it comes. Not everything can or should be saved. Do not let what is important get lost among the clutter.