Like many people, I’ve been watching the media coverage of the ongoing clean up and recovery efforts in Moore, Okla. and the other communities which were devastated by the tornado that ripped through the middle of country one month ago. As reporters spoke with those digging through the rubble that was once their homes, I was struck by a common theme. Although they were searching for anything that could be salvaged, the one item they all said they hoped to find was family photographs.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and Mississippi, residents there too lost family photos in the flooding along with everything else. Unfortunately, among those who lost everything were many professional photographers who otherwise would have archived images of weddings, family groups, baby portraits, class reunions and life’s events. Without those archival files, none of the photos could be replaced.
A family’s photographs, whether snapshots, an old family album of one’s ancestors, wedding pictures or the family portrait that a professional photographer created, are one of the few things that often can not be replaced when a disaster hits. You can’t always predict exactly when or where a natural disaster will strike, but here are some suggestions and precautions to lessen the chances of losing your precious photographic memories.
1) Make two CDs of your images whenever you download them from your camera. This is a common practice among professional photographers, who also go one step further and use archival CDs on which to store their recorded images. Ideally, the two CDs should be stored in two separate locations.
2) Likewise, for film images. Store your negative files and prints in separate locations.
3) Keep personal family photo albums in one place in the home so that you can quickly grab them should you need to evacuate. When still living in Los Angeles, I kept my personal albums together in one closet. When the 1994 Northridge earthquake shook our house and the resulting pipeline fire nearby appeared to threaten our neighborhood, I grabbed the albums between aftershocks and loaded them into the back of our car. In that same closet were the negatives of the portraits of my family that hung throughout the house. I pulled those storage boxes off the shelf as well and packed them into the car. Fortunately, in our case, evacuation wasn’t necessary but I was ready to go with the family memories if it had been.
4) If you live in where tornadoes occur, move your family albums to basement temporarily during tornado season. You won’t want to leave them there permanently unless the basement is climate controlled because excessive humidity or heat can damage your photos, negatives or slides.
5) Store your digital images on a secure on-line storage site. There are costs associated with this storage space but it may be an option for some of your most important images.
6) Provide family members who live elsewhere with copies of your most beloved photos. While you may not want to duplicate every photo you have there are undoubtedly some that hold more meaning for you than others that you might want to share with your family.
7) Scan your oldest, heirloom photos, if you are lucky enough to have them, so that you will have a duplicate in case you lose the original.
8) Established professional photographers retain both the original and finished images of their work so that you should lose your wedding or family portraits in a natural disaster you can have them replaced, unless of course their own studio is also destroyed.
9) Lastly but not least, make prints of those digital images that hold the greatest meaning for you. With the advent of digital imagery, many people no longer make ‘hard copies’ in the form of prints, preferring instead to store the images on their computers, external hard drives, phones or CDs. But for the images you love the most, I highly recommend making prints of them. I do this myself for all my personal family photos because should something ever happen to my computer or the CDs on which they are stored, I will still have my pictures.
As I tell my portrait clients who ask for digital images only, I have stored away files of articles written when I worked as a journalist for TIME and other publications. They were recorded on 5-inch floppy disks, on a program that no longer exists, on an operating system that no longer exists, on a computer that no longer exists. But I have ‘hard’ printed copies of everything I wrote so I still have access to that material. You would be well-advised to do the same with your personal family photographs.
I hope these suggestions will help preserve the visual memories of your childhood and family should a disaster ever befall you. Most of all, I hope should you ever be caught in a natural disaster that you and your family will be safe. Those lives are most precious than any possession or photograph and certainly can never be replaced.