The Great Picture Purge

divorce/breakups Aug 07, 2022

They were everywhere when I ended my marriage. I couldn’t get away—they were everywhere I looked, everywhere I went…

Photos. Thousands of them.

There were seemingly infinite pictures of me and my ex-husband plastered all over my life: framed in my condo, at my Nana’s house, and even a couple surprise photos on the wall at my great-aunt’s house in England, which I discovered while cleaning up after she died. Ten years’ worth of pictures especially blanketed my digital life, as our relationship spanned social media’s photo-sharing peak. Our smiling faces filled my Instagram feed, daily Facebook memories, and endless gigabytes on the cloud.

Soon after my separation in the spring of 2021, I got rid of the handful of printed photos that I didn’t want to face every day (and so did my Nana). But that was all I could handle at the time. Tackling the digital imprint of my marriage felt completely overwhelming— so I avoided it.

For a decade, my ex was posing by my side at every big life event, or he was the one behind the camera begrudgingly entertaining my endless demands for retakes. I shared our photos online to prove to everyone that this crumbling relationship was totally sturdy, and at some level to trick myself into believing it, too. We’d take enough photos until the right one captured the image of happiness I wanted, even if immediately before and after that one click was chaotic, which was often the case.

More times than I want to admit, we’d fight before a big event and I’d tip my head forward to cry so that my tears would fall off my face instead of down it, so as to not ruin my makeup. Probably the most haunting example was an argument in the car just before taking our family holiday photos at Duke Gardens: A quick screaming match, some strategically ejected tears, and then moving on to pose for an image that would be printed, stamped, and sent off to hundreds of people who would’ve never guessed how bad things were. The pictures mattered more to me than my pain.  

After I ended the marriage, I hated that so many of these photos were online. They captured oftentimes disingenuous moments with someone I’d prefer not to be reminded of. But I couldn’t get rid of them.

Author Megan Devine talks about the “vomit metric” for deciding whether or not to do something as you grieve a loss: if the idea of doing that thing makes you feel like you want to throw up, don’t do that thing. I hadn’t read her book yet, but in retrospect, I definitely felt like I wanted to vomit at the idea of going through and deleting all of these photos. I had internalized a social media photo-purge as the norm after a painful breakup, but I couldn’t muster the energy or the courage to do it, myself.

These photos, however selective they were, still captured ten years of my life. We did go on those vacations. We attended those graduations and weddings (including our own). Those are the dogs we got as puppies. My ex is inextricable from telling my story; these photos show the "us" that used to be me. If I deleted these photos from my social media, was I lying about my own life experience? And who, exactly, was I lying to?

And here’s the real kicker: There were so many beautiful photos of us with my late father. My absolute favorite photos of me and my dad are from my wedding day— what do I do about that? I wanted to remember the joy on my dad’s face when he saw me in my wedding gown before walking me down the aisle, but I wanted to forget the actual ceremony. I wanted to remember the beautiful speech he made before our father-daughter dance, but I wanted to forget my first dance with my ex. Photos from that day capture the immense pride my dad took in being a dad—could I keep those images of him on my social media, but delete everything else from my wedding? Is that weird?

Untangling these questions felt too daunting in the early stages of the divorce, so I left all of those photos online to deal with when I felt up for it. A couple of people asked me if I was ever going to delete them, and I told them that eventually I would—when the nausea subsided. I wanted the photos gone, but I wasn’t ready for the emotional work, the grieving, it would require of me to get them gone. I’d reached a griever’s impasse, and I just let it be.

So the photos stayed up.

It wasn’t until a year after my separation that I finally felt ready to do something about it. I decided that deleting photos of my ex wasn’t inauthentic: I was allowing myself to take control over my own story. It was an empowering choice. I’m choosing what I want to see and remember from that time in my life. Because it is MY life.

One rainy Saturday morning in July, I pulled my hair up in a scrunchie, put on my probably pointless blue light glasses, made myself a cup of tea, and got to work on my laptop to commence The Great Picture Purge of 2022. Knowing the deluge of photos drenched in emotion might still feel impossible to tackle, I came up with a couple of flow charts on sticky notes to determine what content I would delete, in an attempt to preempt decision fatigue:

Definitely delete if:

  • Any photo where my ex is the only person in it.

  • Any photo where my ex and I are the only people in it.

  • Any photo related to my wedding. EXCEPT for photos of just me and my dad together on my wedding day. [I decided I didn’t care if that was weird.]

Maybe delete if:

  • Group photo of my ex with friends. How prominent is my ex in the photo? If super-prominent, delete. If ex is in the background, delete if memory I’m not fond of.

  • Photo where my ex is behind the camera, but not visible in it. Delete if memory I’m not fond of.

  • Photo of travel with my ex, whether or not he is visible in it. Delete if memory I’m not fond of.

  • Photo of my ex and my father, whether or not I’m also visible in the photo. [These were the hardest ones for me to let go of.] Delete if memory I’m not fond of.

It took days to go through my social media feeds, post-by-post, and honestly it was gut-wrenching. With each click, I remembered awful moments and benign moments side-by-side, great outfits and hair days it pained me to say goodbye to, the birthdays we celebrated, the beef wellington we cooked one Christmas. I sat with the pain of seeing my ex and my father in photos together, and I let the tears fall down my face. I recapped this public representation of our relationship, piece-by-piece, deciding which vestiges could stay in the new life view I am building.

Very practically speaking, the process was unnecessarily tedious: social media companies could make this so much easier on those of us who are grieving. Because I was blocked by my ex on Facebook and Instagram, I couldn’t activate their features to at least hide him from my daily memories. The only option I could figure out was manually looking through every single photo. Making matters more difficult were pesky photo carousels on Instagram, which I had to peek through to make sure I wasn’t missing any sneaky ones. And Facebook’s never-ending glitches enraged me when they forced me to re-delete photos I had already gone through once. Every day, still, I double check my Facebook memories to delete any straggler posts I might’ve missed.

Despite the painful grieving process, scrolling through these photos, sitting and feeling whatever came with reviewing each one, and then pressing delete, was so freeing. Today I know that anyone looking at Online Me sees me exactly how I want to be seen, with no remnants of the past posturing I put forward. I feel more comfortable than I ever have in my own skin, building the relationships I want to build, the life I want to build, and embracing my feelings along the way.

I’m so proud of the images I share with the world today: they are telling the story of me, exactly as I want to be, without pressure. It’s just my story, now.


Grieve on.


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