ISABELLE DERVAUX
photo organizer and visual storyteller

What should happen to the family photos after your divorce?

We talked with Brooklyn-based photo organizer Isabelle Dervaux about the redemptive power of family pictures and how to tackle the prickly job of divvying up and organizing them after a split. 

 UNtied: Okay, let’s start with this. When it comes to photographs – don’t throw them all out! Even if you want to at this moment!

Isabelle: Right, you’re probably not ready to tackle your photos if you’re still in the process of a separation. I say to people “you might want to throw your wedding album out the window, but don’t.”

There are reasons to keep those photos. Your kids for one…

Absolutely. No matter what unpleasantness has happened in the course of your separation and divorce, kids, for the most part, want and need to see pictures in which their parents were happy and loved each other. It can be really helpful to create a photo album for your kids that accentuates the most positive times, with pictures of them and both parents. Regardless of what has happened in the intervening years, photos help remind them they’ve been unconditionally loved.

I worked with a woman once, and her dad left home when she was, I think, two. And she had carried all her life an understanding of his abandoning her, she thought maybe he didn’t love her. And we looked at a photograph she had of the two of them when she was still just a toddler. And I recall saying to her “look at this picture and how much he loved you!” he clearly was caring about her.  And I think she had never really looked at it that way before and it was very powerful for her. From taking a real look that one fleeting moment, she was more ready to accept that he loved her.

Thank God she had that photograph because, without it, she couldn’t have had that moment of reflection, she might not have had that shift in her view of him.

I think for parents to keep pictures of their children with their ex, when they were happy together is really good. You want to build resiliency in your children, and photos can really show you had some good times as well as bad times.

We offer a workshop called Grief & Gratitude, where we actually ask each woman to bring a photo of them with their ex when they were together and happy.  And boy, it’s hard for a lot of them. They pull these photos out of their bags and they cry. They definitely cry. In a weird way though, it sort of helps them to move forward–in part because they have to acknowledge that there was happiness. It wasn’t all bleak.  Also, when they cry over the photo in this very safe and caring space, it almost sort of neutralizes its power to hurt them. It almost seems like once they’ve been given a safe space to cry, it becomes more bearable to see that photo in the future.

That’s interesting. Another big plus for kids, if your separation is still new, having printed childhood albums can give them a sense of stability and control at a time when family dynamics are rapidly changing. They will have pictures of themselves growing up that they can rely on and even share when they’re getting used to new step-siblings later on.

I also urge people not to toss the wedding album out the window. I usually tell people to just box them up and put them away for a while until the worst has passed and the emotional wounds have healed.


Unless one of you has to move out under time constraints and there is some sort of rush to at least make some basic decisions.

Well, if you are under time pressure, or even when they are ready to tackle the whole job, I have a few general tips for starting the process.

First Instead of dividing up your printed photo collection, consider duplicating, the whole thing and making sure each partner has a copy.  You can scan the photos yourself, or hire a service that does it for you, like Dijify in Brooklyn, or Fotobridge in New Jersey. You can also upload them to a site like Forever, where you can have two separate accounts for you and your ex to look at them.

Also, you can duplicate your digital photo collection easily. Go into your Mac finder and open the “Pictures” file (in your sidebar on the left), and copy the library to an external hard-drive. Then you can just pass a hard drive to your ex so you each of you has a set of all your photos in each home.  I would add that when you open the duplicate photo library, take advantage of the opportunity to quickly delete the worst pictures and rate the best ones.

Check to see if you have old online photo-printing accounts from years ago that you may have forgotten about, and download any originals you are missing, so that you have two complete collections.

Added bonus: If your children are very young, preschool teachers almost always ask them to bring in photos of their extended family for projects like family trees or collages throughout the school year. Remember, If you have duplicates of all your family photos, you won’t have to worry about asking your ex for the pictures you’re missing.

What if you just can’t face doing this?

Well, yes, sometimes going through photos of a broken relationship is just too difficult. You might decide you need to hire a professional photo organizer who isn’t emotionally attached to do the work for you.

Can you give me a sense of how you might work with someone?

Well, I usually work with one spouse, and sometimes the splitting and sharing of photos is actually part of the divorce settlement. Often the volume of the photos is just overwhelming. So I help them edit them down, I often say “let’s pick the best one out of every ten,” and then we delete the rest.

Yes, that word delete. Ouch. That is the hard part for a lot of us.

Well, yes, but having a number like that really helps. Maybe it’s half that aren’t really all that good. But once you have that winnowed down the number, you can make a copy for your ex, and decide how you want to view them. I really encourage creating albums. I think it can be really great for kids to know where they come from, and to know their history, which means sometimes going back generations.

Something I also highly recommend, I advise my clients to create new photo albums that reflect their new life with their kids.

Oh, I like that! Looking toward the future…

Yes, and I find that, after we have gone through the photos from their past, they are generally much better photographers. Sometimes I work with them to help them see what makes a photo worth keeping. Usually, it is people and emotion, or it communicates a story. These days, people take on average about 5000 pictures in a year!  And picking the one good one out of a pile of not so good ones takes a lot of time. I really try and help them reduce that number. I try to get them to think about taking stronger pictures and keeping the 12 best ones each year. We try and create a system that really works for each client for photo taking and photo editing. I also help them make their photo application really work for them because there are a lot of hidden features, editing tools for instance, that they can use that nobody thinks about. A lot of the time I hear clients say “oh, god, I wish I known about this before!”

What do you charge and how do you usually work with people?

It depends. I think most people start with an unrealistic expectation about how they’re going to get it done in a day. I like to offer packages geared toward people’s individual needs. I charge $125/hour but I like to work with people for two-hour increments and schedule them with space in between so they can do their “homework” in between. I find that is the most productive. If I have, say, a package of 10 hours, it might be five visits but I’ll offer a 10% discount.

To learn more or schedule a consultation with Isabelle Dervaux, visit her website here.