Thoughts on Purging Photos the KonMari Way

She came. She took a quick look around. And then she proceeded to clean up.

Ever since Marie Kondo broke onto the decluttering scene with her tips for tidying and putting away, she has shaken up the home organization industry – in Japan, the US and around the world. Her name is tied to an entire organizing system – the KonMari method – and is increasingly used as a verb (as in “Can you kondo your kitchen in a day?”) She has built a cult following with her soothing advice to hoarders and packrats, disseminated through bestsellers such as ‘’The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.

Of course, she has her critics. To some, her methods are impractical and border on obsessive compulsiveness. And not everyone is swayed by her compassion for stockings and purses. She feels it’s wrong to tie the former up in a knot and important to put the latter away carefully at the end of the day, while simultaneously thanking it for its services.

But others swear by her system and credit it with transforming their spaces and lives. On the surface, the KonMari method doesn’t seem revolutionary even though she challenges several established rules of organizing. One of them is the notion of letting go of your stuff gradually and one item at a time. Kondo scoffs at such a tentative approach. The only way to win the battle, she says, is to dive into it and embark on a decluttering marathon.

She also advises people to start purging by category rather than by room. Start with clothing, she says, before moving on to other possessions. But, at the end of the day, says Kondo: ‘’Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”

Can we kondo our photos?

Even to her followers, Kondo seems on shakier ground when she is discussing sentimental items, including photos. In ‘’life changing magic” she quickly moves past this category without really delving into its technicalities. She acknowledges that it is a tough one that should ideally be saved for last. There is a real danger of getting lost if you wade into this category first, Kondo writes in her book. “If you start sorting photos before you have honed your intuitive sense of what brings you joy, the whole process will spin out of control and come to a halt.”

But ultimately, her test for deciding which photos to keep is the same one she applies to less sentimental belongings. Take each and every photo out of the album or box in which it is stored. Then ask yourself: does it spark joy? If the answer is yes, save it. If not, then don’t. Most events in our lives, Kondo believes, can be represented by just a handful of quality images. The rest are not critical to our recollection of these events.

But Kondo’s advice runs up against the reality of sheer volume. According to a Scancafe study from a few years ago, the average American household has more than 3000 old photos stashed away in albums and shoeboxes (as well as in those photo studio envelopes that Kondo finds perplexing). That is a huge number to run through Marie’s ‘does it spark joy?’ test.

It’s also hard to define exactly how old photos affect us. This changes based on the context or grouping of a set of photos. Photographs are time machines that transport us to a period and place that is different from our current reality. They remind us of the people we used to be and the things that were important to us then. And often, when grouped together, they tell a better story than a standalone image.

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So, using the KonMari method to purge our photos is not that simple. We can get rid of duplicates and blurry shots using this method (although we could probably do that without Marie’s system). But it’s hard to make a judgement about the emotional impact of a photograph without viewing it in the context of other related images.

Once we start going through our entire collection of old photos and memorabilia, we’ll realize that our memories are not easily kondo-ed. But there’s a reason why the KonMari method resonates with people. Her advice to cull ruthlessly and without guilt is definitely relevant today with digital photo clutter taking over our phones and hard drives. Nobody really needs fifty images of a sunset or of that tree in their backyard.

But when it comes to cleaning up our analog collection, there are other methods that Kondo doesn’t address in ‘life-changing magic’. The biggest one is digitization to make it easier to view and prune our images. Purging is not a prerequisite for this although it’s a good idea to do a little bit of it to keep the cost of digitizing down. At the end of it, we are likely to have more complete stories of our lives on hand.