This is a portrait of my grandfather, taken while he was doing his military service in 1940 Bulgaria (not part of the Axis yet). I discovered it last summer while perusing the stack of family photos at my parents’ house.
And it was one of the delights of my summer. I saw, in this picture, something in him I had not known but was so excited to discover it. I saw how he felt in that particular moment of his life and some truths he never told me; things I would’ve discussed with him if only he were around today. This picture gave me back a great piece of my own personal puzzle that I didn’t know existed but am so glad I found.
So, what could I do with this treasure? I plundered it from my parents’ collection without telling them, or my sister. My only justification was that it was just temporary and I would scan it and print it in large format and give them copies.
So while I was pondering the morality of making family pictures your own without a fair discussion with siblings and mustering the courage to confess my petty crime to my sister, I thought about the value of our personal photographs as both legacy and inheritance. They really mean more than financial assets and I’d definitely be hurt if I were left out of such a division.
How would you resolve the issue of family photographs as inheritance? I did take the time to research online what the law and legal practice say about this, but didn’t find much. Some of them may be considered art pieces and their division is complicated by their perceived monetary value. But in general, they are not just souvenirs that would be nice to keep as a mememtos. They give you information about yourself at an emotional and intellectual level that you have the right to own, just like knowing your family medical history can warn you about predispositions and explain your health.
And I am not just talking about physical features. If I had not seen this picture of my grandfather, I wouldn’t have known that that a certain glance and body language I own comes actually from him, skipping my father. It would’ve been easier to keep the delusion that I am the sole maker of my own self. Recognizing him as an ancestor in this visual way was a very humbling and deeply emotional experience. I am thankful that he had the foresight to set aside the time and especially money to have this portrait done at a time when I know he disposed of very little means.
This legacy of being able to know him at a moment when I didn’t exist yet has inspired me to start scanning my old pictures and negatives to preserve them better and think how to hand them down.
So I believe every family member should be able to have a copy of each image. Granted, in a digital age when you take most family pictures yourself, it must be easier to give them all to each family member. You just share the files. But actually, the opposite is true: bestowing a picture inheritance is more difficult in digital formats.
First of all, I know people who have lost all their kids’ pictures in a random computer crash and subsequent harddrive wipe. Many more people, in fact, than those who have lost printed pictures to flood or fire. So it is a good idea to have a “picture vault” – an external hard drive with just images, in several copies kept in different places.
Second, are we sure the files will be readable in a foreseeable future? I am already not able to open some simple text documents I created ten years ago with today’s software. They are considered obsolete by the computer program. Maybe it’s a good idea to add a “file refresh and resave” to your spring cleaning routine, in making sure you update the format of your .jpg files on a new, updated hardware (or resave them in a universal format like .dng). At the minimum, actually print a few of the best pictures at a high quality commercial printing place.
This is a great project for my Christmas break. I’ll keep you informed how it goes and promise to post a selection of my old pictures.