I’m a Generation Xer. You don’t hear much about us anymore. We’re comfortable with technology, we’ve gotten comfortable trading tiny bits of personal data for convenience, and we’ve got digital photo collections that have grown uncomfortably large. But there’s still a gap in my personal history that worries me.

My parents don’t realize that I worry about their photos.

Someday my parents’ photos will become my photos. While I have the skills to turn their relatively small collection of photos into digital copies, I’m worried that I won’t get the chance.

My parents assume that I’ll want the photos of me, but I’ve already seen the baby pictures and the proof that I was an awkward, gangly teen.

What matters most to me are the photos of my parents before my brother and I arrived. I have heard that my parents were young once. There’s even a rumor that my dad had hair. But you know what they say: it didn’t happen if there aren’t pictures.

I’m afraid that by the time I inherit those pictures, my parents will be gone, and they’ll be unable to tell the stories that go with them.

What did they like to do in the humid Indiana summers? What was important to them? It’s hard to tell my dad and his twin apart in baby photos. Will I mistake my dad in childhood photos, too? Both my parents had spouses before. Will I recognize those adults who are in my family tree but aren’t actually family? How many photos are there, and how many of them matter?

In my work today helping people organize their photos, almost every family I meet makes the same mistake. Adults like to start their family stories with their children or with their wedding. Older clients spend all of their time on the photos of their children and grandchildren.

But it’s the black and whites that are precious to my generation — or they might be, if we only had the stories to go with them. 

Unlike my own ballooning collection with over 70k photos and counting, the relative rarity of my parents’ early photos is refreshing. If I could just learn their stories, I’m sure I would cherish the images.

So what’s it going to take to get today’s grandparents and great-grandparents to hand over their photo collections? Most of them still have the mindset that one photo lives in one place at a time. They plan on passing their collection from their home to one other owner.

However, photos today are more ethereal, passing through hard boundaries in a way that vintage black and whites never could. It’s up to us Gen Xers to ask for, cajole, and make investments for those photos to come out of drawers and boxes, out from under beds, and off dusty shelves so they can be shared, preserved, digitized, and then shared again. Grandma and Grandpa don’t realize what they are storing, and they don’t realize that we can save lives by preserving our family photos.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life is fleeting. Photos are the way we connect through the generations. While you stay safe at home, pull out your old photos and encourage your family to do the same.