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Proper Disposal of Outdated Media: A Cautionary Tale

If I were to guess, I’d say it’s safe to assume that you’ve accumulated quite a sizable image library. Regardless of whether you’ve been shooting digitally for a decade or even just a year or two, all of those ones and zeros dancing happily inside your computer as image files are piling up. Don’t forget about all of those photos you’ve scanned in from your film days. Digitized any slides lately? How about the photo stream from your phone? Megabytes become gigabytes, gigabytes become terabytes, and over time the sheer volume of data can become mind boggling.

You’re backing it all up, right? Of course you are.

I think that being neurotic about backing up our images is pretty much a universal character trait of photographers. Or should be. When I shoot a wedding the cards are all backed up once before I even leave the venue. When I get home they are dumped from the cards to the computer. Then again to an external hard drive. I can’t think about anything else until the entire shoot exists in three places. I’m a little less uptight about commercial shoots, but only a little. For those, I only require a double backup. But it doesn’t end there. The catalog on my main drive automatically syncs to an external hard drive. Once a month it all gets synced to a second external drive which is stored off-site. And if that’s not enough, I’m starting to use the Copy cloud storage service as well. It’s like wearing a belt AND suspenders.

But technology changes over time, which means that our methods of backing up our data also change. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that you were backing up your images on CDs. Towering piles of them. The piles began to shrink just a bit when DVDs became a viable option. External hard drives? Awesome. But then the clouds parted and we were suddenly able to store our prized data among them. Over time, those piles of shiny discs become obsolete. Once everything is backed up on current media, the obvious thing to do would be to trash the discs and outdated media, right?

Not so fast. And this is where our cautionary tale really begins.

First, a little background. The photo below is the bridge at Northside Drive and Bankhead Highway in downtown Atlanta. Originally built in 1912, it was a major thoroughfare into the city long before the interstate highway system was even an idea on a drafting board. Years of progress, neglect, and shifting priorities– as well as the fact that the far end of the bridge now simply stops in mid-air 100 feet above some railroad tracks– have transformed it into “The Bridge to Nowhere.”  The bridge has become a haven and encampment for some of Atlanta’s homeless population. I’ve photographed it several times over the years.


This particular image did not come from my hard drive or any of my backups. This image came off a Flickr photostream. Not MY Flickr photostream, but A Flickr photostream. This photo had been part of a multi-DVD backup that I simply threw in the trash several years ago when I switched to external hard drives. I have no earthly idea how, why, or where these discs were found, or what possessed the finder to check what was on them. Apparently he/she could not have just been a run-of-the-mill, garbage-picking identity thief like everyone else. No. This culprit was content to post eight of my photos to their Flickr page.


We are practically hard-wired to protect our personal and financial information by shredding or otherwise destroying it before it goes in the trash. Sometimes I even throw pieces of stuff away in different trash cans. Do you really want your images showing up on a photo sharing site without your knowledge? How about a stock agency? Obviously, the answer is a resounding NO. So, what do you do?  Simple. Destroy the backup before you dispose of it.  Some shredders are powerful enough for discs. If you don’t have a shredder, a hammer, screwdriver, knife, letter opener, or any sharp object can inflict enough damage to the disc surface to prevent anyone from misappropriating your images. External hard drives and jump drives can either be physically destroyed, or be wiped and rendered unrecoverable with programs like KillDisk.

As technology continues its upward march, concerns over the best way to dispose of digital media will hopefully become less and less of an issue. With bigger and bigger file sizes– particularly from cameras with full frame sensors– backup storage options are becoming more and more sophisticated, hopefully making concerns over proper disposal eventually a moot point. In the meantime, however, they’re your photos. Protect them.

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Jeff Guyer
Jeff Guyer

is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

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