What Happens to Your Digital Imagery When You Die?

What Happens to Your Digital Imagery When You Die?

If there is one inevitable in life, it's that at some point, it will end. So, what do you do about all of the digital photos you've shot on different cameras and smartphones, stored on your PC at home, as well as spread out across a host of social media platforms?

Moving on in Life

Death is inevitable, and while some might dislike thinking about and planning for death, it is an essential part of leaving this world. Not because you can't die without making a plan — you obviously can — but that, at best, it leaves you with no control over what subsequently happens to you and your belongings or, at worst, it is irresponsible to those you leave behind. And as I outlined in the Life Rules for Photographers, being responsible places you in control.

A will is a legal document for instructing your executors to enact your wishes when you die. This may involve a written statement, messages to individuals, details of your funeral, or distribution of your assets. Your will is a legal document (and predominantly a financial instrument) for transitioning your "estate" to new ownership, which typically means passing any cash and belongings on to loved ones. For instance, I intend my Leica M4 to a good home that will appreciate it. If you don't have a will, start by using a generic template designed for your legal jurisdiction (I used one from CompactLaw). Anything more complex than gifting assets is best handled by a lawyer. In the UK, March and November are Free Will Month.


As cash easily demonstrates, assets are so much more than physical objects. Indeed, the modern economy shows that assets can take on a variety of forms where any kind of wealth generation is involved. Photography straddles the borders of both, as it can be physical objects, as well as intangible, non-physical creations. For example, original glass plates of the famous Cottingley Fairies sold for over $27,000 in 2018, while Andreas Gursky's Rhein II set the record for the most expensive photo at $4.3M. Wealth, in this instance, is created in the unique object itself; however, copyright is gained from the creation of a photograph and covers its subsequent reproduction. What is powerful about copyright is subsequent control over licensing. David Bowie was smart enough to realize that his music would continue to generate sales into the future and was able to, in essence, sell shares on that future income. Photos can be similar.

Of course, that's not to say your creation is comparable to the likes of David Bailey or Andreas Gursky, but digital assets are of increasing importance. In fact, it may well be that their significance is only realized well into the future with the benefit of historical hindsight. That's certainly been the case for retrospectives of the work from the likes of Tony Ray-Jones, Vivian Maeir, and Jim Marshall.

However, for those who inherit your photos, they are more than just your Lightroom catalog. So much of our lives are lived online, and where our parents and grandparents might have had photo albums, we now have social media accounts. In short, the precious memories of our life lived may well be spread across the internet, locked down in password-protected form.

Access to Online Content

Almost everyone has a Goggle ID that grants them access to the world of Gmail, Photos, YouTube, Docs, and Drive. Perhaps surprisingly, Google has this base well and truly covered with the "Inactive Account Manager" under "Data and Personalization" (called "Make a plan for your account"). You can nominate up to 10 individuals who — after a defined period of inactivity — will receive an email (and text) granting them access to download specified data.

Microsoft takes a more formal approach which requires a request for closure of the account (with full documentation) via the Windows Live Custodian of Records, after which the content can be released to the next of kin. It's nowhere near as slick or helpful which really just shows that Microsoft hasn't thought much about it. Apple appears to take a similar approach which means contacting Apple support, again with a copy of the death certificate.

Facebook took a different course: not wanting to lose content, they are keen for family members to memorialize an account. Once this has been requested (with proof), then a named "Legacy Contact" (you can add these under Settings->General->Memorialization Settings) can undertake limited management. Or you can request the account be deleted. Instagram follows a similar process, while both Twitter and LinkedIn require next of kin to request deactivation (again with documentation).

Bequeathing Your Estate

Google's approach to digital assets and "inheritance" is inspired, as there is no need to provide documentation. In fact, there is no assumption of death, simply a period of inactivity, which could be for a range of reasons. The account settings allow you a great deal of flexibility to determine what those are, setting up individuals' access to content on a case-by-case basis. Any content you store online can be made easily accessible, and when it comes to Google, that can be quite considerable (particularly if you are a Chromebook user), covering email, photos, calendars, contacts, and storage (documents) among many of their products. For loved ones, these can be incredibly important.

That's great in and of itself, but you can go a step further and take advantage of the flexibility bespoke access offers by making a digital copy of your will available to your executors. Put the latest copy in a specific folder on Google Drive, making sure you encrypt it first (using something like 7zip). You can give your executors the password at the point of writing your will so that they can access it immediately prior to retrieving the signed copy.

In addition to your will, include your password manager file with it. This should store at least the username and password of every account you have opened: finances (PayPal, credit cards, savings), utilities (electric, gas, water), services (broadband, iTunes, Spotify, Prime, Netflix), email (Microsoft, Apple), social media (photo sharing, Facebook, Instagram), file sharing (Dropbox, Box), and shopping. Don't forget to include any business-related accounts you might have.

I use the open source PasswordSafe as my password manager, which stores all my logins in an encrypted file. You can use just one strong password to unlock it, but I've gone for the nuclear option that requires Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) using a Yubikey. You'll still need to get your password and the Yubikey to one of your executors, but it expedites part of the process. It's also a reminder to never leave any unencrypted confidential information in an online account: they aren't secure.

Control Your Future

Perhaps it seems a little morbid to be preparing for death, but it comes to everyone, and knowing that your estate will be passed on as you intend it to be is satisfying. It means that you can benefit those you want to in deep and meaningful ways — positive, life-changing, and life-affirming. And remember that it doesn't just have to be assets: you can leave statements and letters for public and private reading, as well as details of any service or memorial you would like in your memory. If you haven't done so already, try filling out a will template; even if you don't make it a legal document, it will get you thinking, which is a good thing.

Images courtesy of Artbejo and Free-Photos via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Same thing as now. Forgotten and unimportant

not sure the poll option is working. Sure I'm not the only one to have submitted, but even with my contribution it's currently showing 0 / zero votes across all options.

Same, I voted and everything shows a zero.

...and still no voting(?) or results 10 hours later.

Sorry about tha. It looked like crowd signal is defunct as a service now. I'm in the process of switching over this article unfortunately wasn't able to use the new service

Who cares, it doesn't matter

Nope. We delude ourselves into thinking we have to carry endless meaning beyond the grave. Legends, kids that carry the "legacy", making a difference in the world and so on and so on.

In case I die unexpectedly, I have bequeathed all my relevant retouched files to three of my biggest and most important (emotionally to me) clients with a license to use them in all media in perpetuity. They've been great to my career and I'm happy to give back.

If I live a bit longer, I will give them that license before I die, ideally with some nice PR of signing the papers with the CEO to help give them some extra exposure. I don't want to do it yet as I'm still working for them for pay and don't want to diminish that dynamic. (They are not aware at this point they are in my estate plans.)

As for all my other work, I'm pretty sure it's going to simply evaporate just as I will once I'm gone.