by Susan McCarthy
When you began sorting through your family photos, including those you’ve inherited from parents and grandparents, you likely started organizing the images into stories. You may have thought that you were ordering the photos by year or grouping them into common events (like vacations or birthday parties), but you were also adding an element of storytelling to the collection.
You may remember time as a child sitting with a parent or grandparent as they flipped through the pages of an old family photo album, them naming people and telling little family stories along the way.
And while this can be a cherished memory, as an adult you may find yourself looking through that same album, wishing for more than a few faded penciled names along the edges or backs of the photos. Even pictures of your own childhood may have you struggling to pull details from your mind. You wish you knew just a bit more.
Which is why you want to do more than sort through photos and bring some sort of order to them. You want to include a few stories about the people, events, and places in these pictures.
And before you start worrying that you aren’t much of a storyteller, keep in mind that less is more. You already have a picture there that is doing some of the work for you. You are giving meaning to the image with a few words.
You want your kids or grandkids to be able to look at these images someday and understand who and what others will look at.
Tell a Story with Special Images
While “a picture may be worth a thousand words,” sometimes we do want to hear more of the story behind an image. And when I say “story” don’t get uptight that you must pull together a riveting tale worthy of a New York Times bestseller.
Remember, books and movies are about a character striving for something against the forces getting in their way. In most cases, our photos focus on triumphs or even glimpses of the everyday.
If someone doesn’t know the background to a photo, then that little detail can add depth to the image. What is a cute (but somewhat forgettable) photo of a little girl climbing a set of stairs shows itself as a family memory when you learn that toddler spent the family vacation climbing every staircase she found, mastering her new skill.
Do you need pictures of her climbing every set of stairs? No. That single image becomes more important because it stands out – why was this photo included in the album? A few words, “Ellie climbed all the stairs on Martha’s Vineyard,” can prompt the memory of that vacation and what may have been a detail that faded over time.
One of the reasons that you sort through photos, comparing images, is to find the picture in the dozens or hundreds of an event that captures the emotions of that moment. “Finally, together! Uncle Brandon’s Christmas in July Cookout.
You can include these simple stories in photobooks or in the description of the digital file.
Connect Different Stories with a Theme
You can tell stories with the way you choose to group photos. Maybe three or four generations of your family has returned to the same vacation spot for years and you have photos of these trips. You could create a photo book that places pictures of great-granddad next to images of your child standing in the same spot or doing the same activity.
Or you have pictures of a few generations each celebrating Hanukkah and you group these together in an album to show a continuity of tradition.
With either of these examples, you might not write out stories but simply identify individuals in the pictures. The story is told through the pictures.
If you’ve been thinking that photographs need to be set in chronological order to tell a story, the idea of grouping images by theme may change the way you’ve traditionally put together albums.
You could even group those first day of school photos to add impact to the changes in your child’s appearance and interests over the years. Set into an album arranged chronologically, with pictures of vacations, Halloween, Christmas, birthday parties, camp, etc. in between those first day of school pictures, those changes won’t stand out quite so much.
Tell a Story Chronologically
Although the idea of grouping photos by a theme may seem interesting, you may still find the idea of telling a story through time more appealing. With images organized this way, the story is implied, this is the life of the family or this individual in pictures. Dates, places, and names help to anchor those images in time and space.
You can put photos in chronological order in a printed photobook or you can label a digital folder with a year. That digital folder can then break down to other date-bound folders filled with photos within that time frame.
And there is definitely an appeal to a story told in order. You can see an individual’s life or a family’s lives progress. Baby photos near the beginning of an album end with wedding pictures (that then become photos in a new album that tells a new story).
Where to Store These Stories
Even if you have print photos, you’ll want to scan and digitize them not only to back them up but also, so you’ll have access to these pictures and use them to create photobooks. Or, if you're using a photo and video storage system like Forever, you can include information in with your stories and collections.
You don’t have to dramatize these stories to make them seem bigger. They can be a prompt, a reminder of what occurred on that trip. Include just enough to give meaning to the image.
Telling Stories with Family Photos
Your family photos tell stories in a visual way. However, you can also help things along by anchoring the images with names, places, and events. Add in a few lines to flesh out the memories so those in the future won’t just see names but also meaning.
To recap, you can tell stories with
Including some of this information in digital files as well as in photobooks and albums will help your children, grandchildren, and future generations understand the experiences that helped make their family who they are.
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