How many photos of one lifetime does one person need? The answer is 17

Have I mentioned how the most powerful letter in the ABCs of photo organization is C?

C stands for trash can.

And boy, I haven’t seen an unorganized photo collection that couldn’t use a trash can. Fully 50% of any unedited collection can be thrown away without substantive injury to the meaning of what’s left.

A lot of people lament how kids nowadays have no regard for printed images. They take a thousand photos with their phones, post pictures on the fleeting News Feed of Facebook and send images to friends that last 10-seconds (or less) on Snapchat. (Haven’t heard of Snapchat? Get thee a friend who’s 20-something to show you, and then you’ll understand why most of the pictures you share that way last only 10 seconds. Let’s just say, Snapchat is not exactly about quality.) In any case, the popular meme going around is that the Most Photographed Generation will have no photos in 10 years.

Well, baloney.

Sure, the Most Photographed Generation probably won’t have as many photos as those of us who grew up in the film age (when we printed every photo because we couldn’t see it until it was developed, and then we got double prints because they were FREE!), but kids today will certainly have as many photos as my grandparents did back in the time before Polaroid cameras and ubiquitous corner drugstores. Really — how many photos does one person need in one lifetime?

To be fair, I don’t play favorites with the ABCs, because I love S, too — S is for stories, remember. And the photos that should be printed and later saved from the trash can are the ones that tell a story — stories of new babies and baptisms and birthdays. Stories of love and life and loss. But most of the photos we take nowadays are junk to begin with — “great day for golf,” “look at what I’m eating!” and “ooh, look at how scary the sky looks right now.” And even worse are those duplicates we take ourselves — “one more just in case” and “let me turn off the flash” and “let’s get a horizontal one” and “wait, I want to show off my good side.” These photos don’t tell any stories. They’re just more data, dragging us down and making us feel guilty.

Is it the end of the world if we lose our digital camera or Facebook goes bankrupt or a thumb drive becomes corrupt and we lose every single picture we ever took of Junior shoving birthday cake in his face when he turned 1?

No. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, I might argue the world is a better place (I hate those messy cake shots).

To be clear, every kid deserves to have one album all about them. And by “album” I mean “printed album” (or at least a scrapbook of printed photos). But a quickie album printed with Walgreen’s or Shutterfly (or any one of a hundred other photo book companies) is still a print. And honestly, no kid going off to college takes 18 years worth of photo albums with them, no matter how good the quality and no matter how much love with which they were created.

So back to the question: How many photos does one person need in one lifetime? I maintain the answer is somewhere between 17 and 1,000. Someone might want 10,000 or 100,000 photos (though I don’t know why), but they certainly don’t need 10,000 photos to tell a great story of a well-lived life.

Why 17? Remember when Facebook turned 10 years old back in early 2014 and everyone circulated those one-minute look-back montages of their most-liked posts? Well, those very succinct (but effective) videos had about 17 images.

If you’re someone who doesn’t have even 17 printed photos stashed somewhere (or the parent of someone like that), there’s your goal: Print at least 17. Get them into an album that tells a story. It may not be everything (who are we kidding — it won’t be everything), but it would be the most important bits and pieces of one person’s life, and that’s a lot better than nothing. And certainly better than 10,000 or 100,000 unprinted images plugging up a hard drive, drifting out there in cyberspace without any story or structure.

Just 17. You can do it.

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