Although we’ve always thought of ourselves as rather minimalist, we’ve been realizing that we have attachments to things that we don’t really want or need anymore, and have a hard time letting them go. What we are really attached to are the memories and associations the object spurs, afraid we’d lose the memory if we could never see the object again. As a solution, we started photographing things we wanted to let go of to create a digital archive of “Memory Stuff”. It freed us up to give stuff away.

Now we have a photo to remind us the tiny blue-gray pebbles we collected as we sat for hours on a beach near San Francisco talking to a friend many years ago…We don’t need to write anything down, because the memories are within us, called up instantly.

We discovered a variation of this strategy in a recent SwissMiss post called Eulogy of Stuff; it quoted a Comment left on an Apartment Therapy thread by a reader named slocumnavigator:

When an item is in dispute (meaning I want to sell, toss, or recycle it and the kids need to keep it), we take a photo and stick the photo in a book, where they get to write a small eulogy about it. Then it goes out. You’d be amazed how this small project has taught them to view what is special and what is not.

A digital memory archive is an inexpensive way to “have” things without really having them, freeing you up to pass the real object on to someone who will value it, and make their own memories with/of it…It’s an antidote to “stuffism”.

In this way, we still have the thin beeswax church candles we bought on a Greek island, that smelled of flowers and honey…


…and the tin Dopey wind-up toy from a friend who died of AIDS many years ago…

…and the odd little chalice of molded sugar that we bought at a pastry shop in a tiny ancient town in Italy; it had been pure white and filled with tiny candies…

…and many other memorable things…

All photos by Tara Mann.

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10 replies on “digital memory archive (photograph stuff then give it away)

  1. I have heard of this before but your photos are so beautiful and make each item special, I think I will try it. I do have a photo of my family at our last dinner in Hawaii just after 9/11 (we were on vacation). The dress I was wearing, my daughter’s beautiful yellow shirt, and the food I ate is right there for me to remember any time I want. I never thought about how special the things in my photos are since I am usually looking for the person in the photo.

  2. I love this idea. I did something similar (sadly without the photos) several years ago after my parents died. They were both pack rats, and while cleaning and sorting the “memories” of our family life, I realized that I no longer needed to keep the actual objects- it was the memories I wanted. So I passed on almost everything to others, who were enchanted and thrilled to “own” them. We really do not own anything for long, anyway. I like to think of those loved objects making others as happy as they did me.

  3. You make an essential point: that the objects you once loved can have new life with someone else, and continue to bring pleasure and usefulness.

  4. This idea really resonates with me. I live in a 280 SF studio and looking to rid my space of excess stuff. I will start taking photos and purging tonight! Thank you!

  5. A great idea from Annabella, sent by email:

    “I have relied on digital archives for a few years now, being a mother of two “very prolific” artists, specially during the pre-school years. At the end of the school year, we would sit down and select the work we were really happy with and would keep if we had the space. The selection process led to documenting it (photographing it) and then assemble picture books where the kids would add the appropriate captions – Apple and Shutterfly offer these services. These cherished volumes allow us to admire their artistic progression without the hassle of “attic attack”… the love of technology!”

  6. I enjoy woodworking. I choose pieces that appeal to me but I give them away when someone takes a fancy to them. I began taking photos of each finished object thinking I needed a record of my accomplishments but the effect was something very different. I place these photos into my family albums as they are taken. When I see one of them my memory is of the person who now owns the piece. It may sound as if I want to remember being generous but that’s not the case. It is an old friend no longer living on this side of the country or a daughter when she was a small child or a very interesting stranger who crossed my path. After seeing your beautiful photos I find that I really need a better camera.

  7. Thanks for this interesting variation on the theme. FYI, the photos in the post were taken with an iPhone, which has quite an amazing little camera that is easy to carry, no fuss-no muss.

  8. This is beautiful. The idea of creating intimacy with an object through photography can generate such strong emotions – some good; some bad – but ultimately they’re defining a part of who we are as well as our culture. Patti Smith’s recent collection of photos in Camera Solo speaks to this idea of photographing objects that we share a memory with and what a significant process it can be.

  9. Thanks so much for letting us know about Patti Smith’s show Camera Solo. We didn’t know about it, and it segues perfectly with our post.

  10. This is giving me things that I could do your idea my left overs excellent now I will think twice before throwing things out

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