A split screen, on the right a photograph of a woman wearing glasses, guest, Hazel Thornton and on the left a photo of a book cover - What's a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy by Hazel Thornton - professional organiser and genealogist

Episode 189 – What’s a photo without the story with Guest Hazel Thornton

Have you got boxes full of (old or new) photos and no idea of what to do with them? Are you intrigued by the people in these photos and do you want to find out more about them? In this podcast episode I’m chatting to Hazel Thornton from Org4Life about why the story behind the photo’s can help you create a family legacy.

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The terms keepsakes and memorabilia are often used interchangeably. They both refer to things we don’t need for daily living, but which remind us of something or someone from our past.

Hazel Thornton, creator of The Clutter Flow Chart Collection, is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She combines her genealogy research skills and professional organising experience to help clients tell the stories of their photos, families, and things. Visit her online at www.org4life.com.

Hazel has kindly shared an excerpt from her latest book What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy for our blog.

Memorabilia are objects kept for their historical interest, especially those associated with memorable people or events. These can be inherited or collected from our own lifetime of experiences.

Keepsakes are items kept in memory of whoever gave or originally owned them. 

Not all keepsakes and memorabilia are created equal. Remember: If everything is special, then nothing is special.

 If your collection of memorabilia is out of control, and you are wondering how to manage it, here are the questions to ask yourself before you even get started.

Why am I doing this?

What is your goal? Are you organising your memorabilia because you want to:


  • Downsize in preparation for a move?
  • Create more space in your current home?
  • Simplify your current lifestyle?
  • Make it easier for your loved ones to deal with your stuff when you die?
  • Make money by selling items you no longer want to keep?
  • Share the memories with your family?
  • Leave a family history legacy for future generations?

Why am I doing this now?

How long has it been since you dealt with your memorabilia?

How much space does your collection occupy?

Are you having trouble finding what you want to look at, display, use, or share?


If you’ve inherited someone else’s memorabilia, do you even know what’s in those boxes? Are you ready to take a hard look at them? It’s OK if you aren’t. Take your time. There’s no rush. Unless, of course, you’re downsizing to move. Or you’re in the process of estate planning and getting your affairs in order. Or you want to share the items with your family sooner than later. Or the boxes have been sitting there silently nagging at you.


But don’t wait 16 years, as I did with my mom’s 33 boxes of scrapbooks, photo albums, and other memorabilia! And don’t store them in a dusty or non-climate-controlled garage, or attic, or shed, as I confess that I did!

Why am I keeping this?

You will ask yourself this question again and again, for each item you encounter. But, for now, just think about the overall quantity and quality of your memorabilia. And, as always, consider this: What is your clutter costing you in time, space, money, and energy?


Are you keeping it:


  • To use, display, share and enjoy?
  • Out of guilt or obligation? 
  • Because you don’t know what else to do with it?
  • Because you’re afraid you’ll forget the person, event, or era? (I promise you won’t!)


We think of memories as priceless, irreplaceable, close to the heart, and hard to release. But not all the things we own, or the things left behind by a loved one, are valuable or important.


If you worry about offending a family member by getting rid of something you inherited, ask them if they want it. Or get rid of it surreptitiously. Would your deceased loved one want to see you suffer? Would they want your home to be cluttered, worrisome, and unlivable? Of course not! They would want you to feel happy, and to cherish their memory; not to feel guilty or burdened by them.


Once you’ve gathered everything that you have to remember them by, it will be easier to select a few special items and give yourself permission to let the rest go. If your family or loved one is famous, you have an excuse to keep everything or donate it all to a museum or archive. Otherwise, as comedian Steven Wright says, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” 

What will others do with my memorabilia when I die?

If you have been dealing with inherited memorabilia, like I have, you know how overwhelming the experience can be. Now is the time to start thinking about your own stuff. What are you leaving behind for others to deal with? Someone is going to be grieving for you someday; do you want to pile a heap of clutter and difficult decisions on top of that?


Do your family a favor: Downsize and declutter now so your family doesn’t have to do it for you when you’re gone.


If something is special to you, and you want the people you leave behind to know it, you need to tell them. And if you told them 20 years ago, you can’t expect them to remember. Instead, use what you are learning in this book. Take a photo of the item; write a story about it; and let people know what it meant to you, otherwise it will get lumped in with the dishtowels and they won’t know if it was important to you or not.


WARNING: This project may cause you to re-think the way you live your life! The more you keep in mind how you want to live your life now, and how difficult it is to go through your own memorabilia, much less someone else’s, the more you will make mindful choices about what to acquire and keep now and going forward.

Do I need help?

It has been a little tricky being both the organiser and the client for my own project. For one thing, I didn’t realize that my mom’s boxes would contain so much of her parents’ memorabilia. There are some treasures in there, to be sure, such as my grandparents’ love letters, but there’s SO MUCH OF IT. But if I don’t deal with it, who will?


I find myself getting distracted from the organising task at hand the same way my clients do. And I give myself the same advice: “Don’t read the letters now! Put them in the LETTERS pile. You can read them later!” I’m not paying myself for my time, though, so sometimes I go ahead and read the letters. Why not? The project is important, but there’s no rush to complete it.


Fortunately, I had my brother’s help with the initial sorting process. We’ve had to make some decisions for our other brothers who, also fortunately, trust us to make them. There have been touching moments, and funny ones. We’ve experienced a variety of emotions, ranging from nostalgia over our own childhood photos, to discomfort from reading Mom’s private journals, to the joy of hearing her voice and her piano music on cassette tapes.


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