Interview - Isabelle Dervaux, Family Photo Curator

Photo Credit: Tamara Gillon

Photo Credit: Tamara Gillon

If a photo is worth a thousand words what happens when you have thousands of photos? Most if not all of our clients ask us what to do with their photos. First, we want to get them all together and store them safely (not in a hot attic or wet garage) and then we can decide what “action” applies to the photos. For some simply keeping them safe is the next and final step but for some other ideas we spoke with Photo Organizer Isabelle Dervaux.

What do you do for your clients?

I help families make sense of the tens of thousands of photos they accumulate over time and create systems that keep them organized. We now take more than 3–5,000 photos per year. Those photos pile up, and given enough time can cause a certain amount of what I call digital anxiety. So you could say I also relieve them of that anxiety while I help them make meaningful projects from the pictures they love.

How did you get started?

It actually started as I began organizing my own family photos when we moved from San Francisco to New York. It was difficult at first to find all of those pictures—scattered among boxes of print photos and digital photos on hard drives, old laptops, and even thumb drives—and once all the photos were in a single location, to not get overwhelmed by hundreds of scans or entire collections that had been duplicated by accident! But there were also moments of joy, like discovering the digital photos of a weekend camping when the kids were young that I thought were lost and now miraculously appeared.

I developed my own methods to get through all the road-blocks and when finished with several projects, felt a real sense of accomplishment as well as a weight lifted from my shoulders. I realized other people must be facing the same issues with their own family photos that I had faced and started working with others to help them organize and find joy in their own photo collections.

If someone is interested, what is the process?

Isabelle Dervaux, Family Photo Curator

First, we schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation. We have a conversation about what’s important: do they want to organize their digital collection to make photos easier to find? Are they looking to design family albums for their young children? Are they concerned about boxes of old family pictures gathering dust? Once we’ve determined the challenges they’re facing, we set priorities and goals and I recommend a strategy that suits their needs.

I like working side-by-side with my clients—I often work at their homes, so we can share a more detailed view of the family, who the relatives are and what events are most important. We work in manageable chunks, usually once a week over the course of a month, but occasionally for three or more months if we’re dealing with a larger print collection or bigger project.

When tackling a digital photo collection, we start by tracking down every device and storage system the pictures may be found on. Once we’ve gathered and moved the photos to one place, we find a strategy that best suits the client and start organizing and curating their collection with a concrete step-by-step action plan. I teach my clients just enough tech shortcuts and insights to give them the confidence and tools they need to continue organizing their photos, and empower them to make beautiful slideshows and albums on their own.

What makes you different?

Beyond organizing their pictures and sorting out years of photos in a systematic way, our work together also becomes an opportunity to teach my clients about photography and design. I come to this work through a long career as an illustrator, and I love to share the same principles with my clients that I taught in my illustration class at Parsons School of Design. When we find great photos in the course of our work, we analyze what makes them so good—the light, the emotion, the composition, for example—so they can then go on to recreate those same conditions again, on their own. When my clients learn how to recognize their best photos, they also learn how to take better photos, and that reduces their need to edit later on. So the benefits of what I teach my clients extend far beyond the actual time I spend with them.

What is the storytelling aspect of photo organizing?

Isabelle Dervaux, Family Photo Curator

I’m always on the lookout for engaging, strong images that will provoke conversations and foster deeper connections between family members and friends. Photos are a means of communication. I teach my clients to really look at and read their images rather than just viewing them as one-off snapshots. The way images are edited, grouped and sequenced has a big impact on a photo album. When making an album, you’re making it for yourself, but you’re also creating it for others to view. That means creating a story arc and giving context to the time period, the people in the photos, and information that will keep the viewer hooked—you want them to keep them interested and turning the pages without yawning!

Can you recall any projects that stood out or were especially exciting—or challenging?

I once helped a client find a year’s worth of photos she thought she had lost, including pictures of her daughter as a newborn through her first birthday. I was so happy to help a mom get her daughter’s first year back!

Going through photos can be especially difficult if you’ve recently lost a close family member or friend. I have helped soften the process for clients who want to honor the memory of those who are gone—together we work on finding the most expressive pictures, and create photo stories by which to remember their loved ones.

On a lighter note, I work with many families who travel all over the world. I have gone to virtually every continent through my work, and I love discovering new places as if I were there.