Elevator operator became a job sometime in the latter half of the eighteenth century, first appearing as its own category on the U.S. Census in 1910. It is the only job since 1950, according to a recent study, to have been fully eliminated by automation. Occupations come and go, their life spans following trend and technology. Town criers, soda jerks, lamplighters, clock winders, pinsetters, and ice cutters give way to air-traffic controllers, genetic counsellors, drone operators, influencers, and social-media managers. The other day, a journalist was scrolling through Instagram and spotted an interesting-sounding gig in another user’s bio: personal-photo organizer.
A call to Fort Greene (no operator necessary) confirmed that personal-photo organizing is, indeed, an emerging profession, and that people who spend their days swiping and saving in the name of posterity are also known as family-photo curators. “Photo managers can help organize and curate collections, digitize prints, suggest backup systems, re-house in archival storage, and help you tell your story through photo book design, videos, websites, and countless other ways,” reads the Web site of the Photo Managers (formerly the Association of Personal Photo Curators), est. 2009.
Isabelle Dervaux, on the line in Brooklyn, explained that she was born in Valenciennes, in the north of France, which is traditionally populated by sugar-beet farmers, slag miners, and lace makers. She went to art school, moved to New York in 1991, married an American, moved to the West Coast, worked as a freelance illustrator (mostly for magazines), had two kids, and moved back to New York—her husband’s home town—when the economy imploded in 2008. Soon after, she lost her job, as an adjunct professor at Parsons, so she started cataloguing her own family’s photographs.
“I realized it made me feel so much better to see only a few good photos rather than getting lost in too many meh ones,” she recalled.
Dervaux charges a hundred and twenty-five dollars an hour and works with about forty clients a year. Almost all of them are people with money and kids and years’ and sometimes decades’ worth of gigabyte-gobbling outtakes. By Dervaux’s estimation, a family of four generates five thousand photos annually. “It gets worse every year,” she said. In sorting through them, she uses the same mantra she once applied to her illustration portfolios: “Only show your best work and be ruthless.” She explained, “A mom will look at a picture and see her child, just normal. I will see the child and the garbage can that’s on the playground, and somebody’s foot with some ugly sandal.” Where a parent hesitates, Dervaux is sure she wants to delete that overexposed portrait or blurry holiday shot. She said, “I’m looking for what Roland Barthes called a ‘punctum’—something in a picture that touches the viewer, even if it’s indescribable.”
A family once hired Dervaux for eighty hours, to curate their photos and be done with it, but she prefers a pedagogical approach, working side by side with a client, so that the client can do his or her own sentimental labor in the future. The goal is to whittle every year’s collection down to no more than twelve hundred keepers (“faved” on an iPhone), a couple of hundred selections for a digital album, and, finally, twelve to fifteen “best” photos that would qualify for a holiday card or to hang on a wall.
Swiping around in strangers’ camera rolls is not without occupational hazards. Dervaux has stumbled across nudes, birthing closeups, and enough is-this-a-rash-or-what selfies to overwhelm a dermatologist. The process of sorting through photos is, in many ways, a process of sorting through emotions. “Some people don’t want to see their ex-husband pop up on the screen,” Dervaux said. “We’ll export those so they won’t be mixed up with your new husband.” Photos, she said, fall into three categories: 1) family, friends, and memories; 2) places and things; and 3) practical information (a screenshot of a bike-rental agreement, a recipe, a class schedule). “In the past, we were photographing physical things to remember the past,” she said. “But now what we do is we photograph ideas. We photograph things for the future, like a number we want to call.” One of her niftiest tricks is using the search function to locate “documents” in Apple Photos to easily cull all the random pictures of pieces of paper.
Curate a family’s photos and they’ll be organized for a day; teach them how to take better pictures and they’ll be organized forever. “My philosophy is Let’s try not to take a picture that you’re going to have to delete later,” Dervaux said. “If it’s too dark, do not take the picture!” Take pictures at the beginning of the birthday party, she said. And don’t try to document every single day. “When you have a baby that’s one year old, every photo is important, but, in twenty years, you’re just going to want the best ones,” Dervaux said. “You kind of have to do this for your future self.” ♦
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