Keeping Memories Alive
November 20th, 2018 by David LaBelle

Me and my young mother in Costa Mesa, California, before we moved to Creek Road in Ojai. I was 1 year old.
Photo courtesy of David LaBelle

In seconds they are lost forever—our homes, our dreams, our irreplaceable heirlooms and precious photographs—memories devoured by roaring winds, racing flames or trespassing waves of water.

Fifty years ago, churning floodwaters swept away our family home, taking my mother’s life and everything my parents had labored so many years to build. All documents, records, letters, family pictures, negatives from my childhood through my teenage years were lost.

My father, brothers, sister and two friends escaped when rescued by a helicopter just minutes before we were swept downriver as well. The 1969 flood claimed many lives.

During any tragedy, escaping with life is most important. We are thankful, but there is real grief in losing one’s home, pets and precious personal items that connect us to the past and present and help us keep memories alive.

For me, the only physical items I have to connect me to my mother is a small nightstand my brother retrieved from piles of debris a mile down the creek from where our home was washed away and a few copies of family snapshots my relatives had, mostly made when I was a small child. My brother refinished the nightstand and gave it to me as a Christmas present a year after the flood. After a half century and dozens of moves, I still have it.

As a news photographer, I covered many natural disasters—fires, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. My heart ached each time I witnessed the deep pain of people who had lost loved ones, homes and personal belongings. Of all the material things lost, irreplaceable photographs was what they grieved over most.

In light of the barrage of natural disasters, take steps to save your precious memories.

  • Burn DVDs or CDs of images you want to keep. Make at least two copies. Keep one in your home and another in a fireproof, climate-controlled safe or storage facility in another state. The lifespan of a a DVD or CD is debatable. Some say they are good 7 to 10 years.
  • Make archival prints of important images and store them in acid-free archival boxes in a fireproof, climate-controlled safe or facility.
  • Store images on a designated external hard drive, although I don’t trust these as my only source of backup. There are too many stories of lost information, especially after dropping the drive.
  • Store images in “the cloud”—a network of integrated computers that store your data online, as opposed to keeping them on your hard drive. Like physical storage units where we keep our valuables, the cost of digital online storage varies, depending on how much storage you need. As long as a natural disaster doesn’t destroy the mammoth city of computers holding your pictures, your images should be safe and retrievable. But there is always a risk.

It’s a dilemma. I opposed online storage because of horror stories of photographers losing all their images when a company collapsed. With the cloud, this is highly unlikely.

I also don’t like someone else having access to my information. However, anything you post is out there. I continually see my pictures on unfamiliar sites. Once I post something online, there is no such thing as private. Somebody can access it. Always. I have somewhat made peace with this, but it still feels like living in a glass house where every stranger can see my daily life.

There is no one perfect system. In the end, I suggest you back up your most precious pictures a variety of ways.

Last month, someone took my phone with all of my images and contacts. I tried to track it, but the thief had turned the device off. I didn’t have my data—my words, contacts and pictures—backed up on the cloud, though I had downloaded many pictures.

I think I learned my lesson. Though I despise the idea of someone else holding and having access to my images and information, I am in the process of backing up my work online and keeping DVDs, negatives and hard copies.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit