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How to Organize a Family Photo Exchange

Updated on March 6, 2014
Don't lose those precious photos to history. Learn how to arrange a photo swap with your relatives.
Don't lose those precious photos to history. Learn how to arrange a photo swap with your relatives. | Source

Benefits of Exchanging Photos

There are many benefits of sharing photographs.

  • You will be able to finally get a copy of photographs that are in your family members' photo albums, boxes, frames and attics.
  • You'll be able to have old photographs to remember your family members and their history,
  • You will be able to preserve the photographs for posterity, in case the original your cousin has gets lost or destroyed.
  • You'll be able to get some copies back if your photos get lost or destroyed.
  • You also have a wonderful legacy to leave with your descendants in your branch of the family. In this way, the photo of great-grandma gets to pass on to all of her descendants instead of one particular branch.
  • Most importantly, you will have the opportunity to discuss the photos with your family and collect family stories.

Before we start, I want to tell you some sad stories about photographs that have been damaged or destroyed. If you need to convince your family members to share their photos, you may want to tell them about these sad photos so that they can see the value of preserving them.

Exchange photos with your family so you don't lose precious historical photos like this one.
Exchange photos with your family so you don't lose precious historical photos like this one. | Source

Don't Lose Those Treasured Photos

Treasured family photos get lost or destroyed over time often and in so many ways. There are so many varied circumstances, and they don't have to be big catastrophic ones like a hurricane or tornado.

Here are some I personally know about.

  • A leaky hose on the washer caused a small flood in the basement which destroyed all the photos and records that were stored in a box.
  • Photos and other memorabilia were boxed up, but were accidentally sold at an auction along with the desk it was sitting on.
  • In the hubbub of moving out of a house, a box of tax forms and photographs was forgotten.
  • An estranged family member's photographs had to be thrown out by the caregiver who had no place to put them after he died.
  • An envelope of photos without labels means we have photos of possible family members but we do not know who they are.
  • Photos that were lovingly collected from distant relatives and painstakingly scanned were gone when an external backup drive fell on the floor and stopped working.
  • Old family photographs of my great grandparents were hidden in a photo album, but I was not aware of their existence until I saw my uncle's photo albums.
  • An irate person ripped up all photos of a person who has angered her.
  • A treasured photo taped to the wall slipped down beneath the kitchen counter and was not seen again until the counter is replaced decades later.

And these are just the things that have personally happened to me - in some of the situations, I was the one who lost the photos, and in others, I was the one who found them.

The best way to make sure that you don't permanently lose the treasured family photos to history is to label them and share them with others in the family. With today's technology, more than one person can own the photograph and make sure it gets handed down with the family history.

In Addition to Photos

In addition to old photos of your loved ones, consider exchanging these following additional items:

  • current or other treasured photos
  • photos of buildings where people lived and worked, and neighborhood hangouts
  • photos of cars
  • photos of pets
  • photos of historical events
  • newspaper clippings
  • birth, death, and wedding certificates
  • awards and diplomas
  • school yearbooks
  • photos of heirlooms
  • military badges
  • other family history memorabilia
  • home movies
  • family recipes

Exchange Family Photos

There are steps you can take to ensure that your photos are not lost:

  • print them out and store them in a safe place
  • scan them and store a copy on your hard drive
  • keep a backup copy on an external hard drive or online photo site

The best way I have found to ensure that a photo is not lost is to make copies and share it. If anything happens to my house, or me, there will be someone in the family who still has a copy of my great-grandparents, and hopefully that person will share it with all of their descendants. As a bonus, by freely sharing the photos I have with my siblings and cousins, they are more likely to share their photos with me, thus continuing the family legacy through many different branches of the family tree.


Who Should Participate in a Photo Exchange?

The scope of the photo exchange will depend on the size of the family, how easy it is to get everyone together, and the amount of time and energy you have to put an exchange together. Ideally, the entire extended family would be invited - the grandparents, their siblings, all the children, grandchildren and all of the spouses. Don't forget to also include in-laws and other family friends who will also have photos and stories they can share about your family.

When Should You Do a Photo Exchange?

A photo exchange can take place during a time when the family is already gathering, such as Mother's Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, sometimes those events tend to be too chaotic for a photo exchange. If you think your family would be agreeable, having a separate photo exchange party would probably be better so you have plenty of time to discuss the photos and the many memories that go with each one.

If you can't get together for a gathering, you can also exchange photographs with your family members one person or one family at a time, or do it in the mail or online.

How to Hold a Photo Exchange

There are a lot of different ways you can exchange photos with your friends and family. You should customize and mix and match these ideas based on your own family situation.

Organize a Photo Exchange Party

One way to exchange photos is to gather all your loved ones and host a photo exchange party. Those who have the equipment and know-how can be asked to make copies, or scan their photographs and e-mail or put them on a CD, flash drive, or put them online for everyone to share. Those that don't have the equipment, skills, or time may be asked to send the photographs earlier or simply bring their photo albums, and a volunteer can scan the remaining photographs. If you take a portable scanner with you to the reunion, you can scan them there, so your relative does not have to worry about letting their precious photographs out of their sight. The coordinator can collect all the photos and share them in the methods listed below.

Share Physical Copies of Photos

Choose the participants in the exchange, for example your siblings. Then select criteria for the photographs you want to share, such as all black and white photos or all photos before a certain date. Each of the participants to make a copy of each of their photos that fit the criteria for all of the other participants. Alternatively, you can ask that all of these photos be given to a coordinator, who will then make the copies and distribute them. We printed several photos together on a big sheet, and then cut them apart to save money. This works well when there is a small group or a relatively small number of photos and everybody knows the history behind all of the photos.

Verbatim CD-R Blank Discs 700MB 80 Minutes 52X Recordable Disc for Data and Music - 100pk Spindle Frustration Free Packaging
Verbatim CD-R Blank Discs 700MB 80 Minutes 52X Recordable Disc for Data and Music - 100pk Spindle Frustration Free Packaging
Put your photos on CDs and make multiple copies. Put one in your safety deposit box, one on a bookshelf with your photo albums, and share the rest with your parents, brothers, sisters, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and family friends.

Share Photos on a CD

This option works well when there is a large group or a large number of photos. In this case, the photos are sent, either electronically or physically to a coordinator who puts them all on a CD, and makes enough copies to share with everyone. Since CDs are fairly easy to copy, you may be able to make extra copies for people who didn't actually participate in the exchange, as gifts or a fundraiser.

Share Photos in a Book

If you have inherited a large number of photos and want to share with others, you may consider printing them in a book. With this option, you can identify everyone in the photo and the family story that goes with it. Then print as many copies of the book as you need for the family. You can ask them to defray the cost of the book and shipping. This will keep the family story intact and make sure all those photos don't go unidentified. You can also enlist the help of a family member to gather any missing photos and put the book together.

Share Photos Online

There are many free photo sharing sites online, and you could upload all your photos to that site. Many allow password protection to make sure that only the people you want to have access to the photos have them. This option works better when the family members have computers and the technical experience to look at and get the photos online.

Other ideas for Family Photo Exchange

  • Get a professional photographer to take a group photo during the gathering.
  • Take snapshots at the family reunion itself, and send it to the family members after the reunion as a reminder of the wonderful gathering.
  • Print lots of copies of fun photos ahead of time and let the children do some crafts projects with them.
  • Take the time to interview each other. Here's a list of interview questions.
  • Have a potluck of family secret recipe dishes to share during the gathering.

Photo Table

If you are already having a gathering or have a photo exchange party, you can ask each participant to bring several copies of the same photo. They can be placed on a table, and family members pick out the ones they want to take home. This way makes less work for the family reunion organizers, but may limit the number of family photos that are available if the family member with the most photographs cannot afford or doesn't have the time before the reunion to make the copies.

Individual Service

But you may have some people who do not have the time, technology, or know-how to facilitate the exchange, and may be unwilling to part with their precious photos. For them, you may be able to offer your services to go to their house and scan or copy the photos in their presence.


There may be services such as the one shown in the video that can help facilitate a photo exchange. If you have the funds and don't have the time, you might want to consider finding such service in your area.

Alternatively, you may be able to find someone in the family who is willing to help you round up the relatives, gather the photos, scan or photocopy them, and distribute them amongst the participants. These family members will be more interested in the photos and may be able to collect and record family stories as well.

How to Get Family Photographs From Your Relatives

With a photo exchange, all the family members will have access to these treasured photographs. Each branch of the family will have photos of the ancestors and other family members, and hopefully the stories that go with them. As a bonus, if the photos in one home get lost or destroyed, there are lots of backups!

© 2014 Shasta Matova


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