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Your Story Started Before You

As I began the process of writing a book about photo organizing, I kept thinking that if I only included how-to guidelines I’d be missing the emotions, joys, frustrations, and healing stories that are what make a photo-organizing career so powerful and meaningful. I interviewed individuals and photo organizers about projects they have worked on across various themes from adoption to a 9/11 Memorial project.

This is Rachel LaCour Niesen’s story.

~ Cathi Nelson

Your Story Started Before You

By Rachel LaCour Niesen

When my grandfather died, he left behind photographs that few, if any, members of my family had ever seen. I wanted to use the photos to celebrate my grandfather’s life, and I wanted to involve the family. Social media is a fun and collaborative platform, so I posted a few photos of my grandfather on an Instagram account, “Save Family Photos.” I asked family members if the photos brought back memories. That opened a floodgate!

My grandmother, my mother, other relatives, all had stories. With the photos, I not only honored my grandfather, I also learned more about him and about the rest of the family. The photos created a whole new level of understanding among the family about our shared history. The atmosphere of healing and bonding would not have happened otherwise.

I invited a few close friends to send me their family photos that I featured on the Instagram account. Each photo was captioned with what was, essentially, a short story about the person or people in the photos—about the moment in time captured and how it related to that family’s history.

Very soon, more people joined us. They also wanted to celebrate the power of family photos, especially the vintage ones that have been hidden away in shoeboxes. Those are the most cherished ones. They usually are one of a kind. The Instagram account became a virtual campfire. People would stop by, pull up a seat, and tell stories through the photos that had been stashed away in attics and basements.

The photos remind us that we are more alike than we are different and that families want pretty much the same thing for themselves and for one another. I see common themes of families together, loving each other, celebrating small moments that historians would never bother to record because they’re not global events. But for families, they’re everything.

Candid photos, or even somewhat accidental ones, show our humanity. Maybe it’s a portrait that went wrong—one child crying or pushing the other one. Maybe it’s an in-the-moment snapshot of a mom in the kitchen. Those quick snapshots are of the “in-between” moments; they capture our authentic selves—universal images that we all can relate to and smile at.

I never expected when I posted those first photos of my grandfather that a single photo can be a powerful tool for recognizing our shared humanity.

The Instagram community quickly grew to almost 32,000 followers. I feel honored that people have given me these intimate moments from their family life in a very public way that I think encourages everyone to recognize the importance of their photos.

The Instagram project and the Save Family Photos community demonstrates that you can start with a handful of photos. Ask your family what they know about them. More family will get involved. They’ll want to help you organize your photos, and they will pick out the ones most memorable, or most intriguing, to them.

To start gathering the memories behind the photos, allow yourself to select them in an intuitive, reactive way. Spread the photos out on a big table. It will be the most marvelous patchwork quilt of scenes and faces. Just scan them for a while, and your eyes will begin to settle on the photos with the most powerful content. There may be an aspect of the subconscious going on here. You’ll see that the photos that resonate with us emerge rather quickly, as long as we don’t get too analytical or focus on unimportant things. It doesn’t matter if the photo is out of focus or the color has faded or the arrangement is off-kilter.

Only the content matters when it comes to treasured memories.

Sarah’s story encapsulates the power of photos and Save Family Photos as a community. Sarah’s father gave her some of those old photo-booth pictures of her grandmother. Her grandmother had worked at a department store, so on her break, she’d go to the photo booth and have her picture taken. They are very sweet snapshots of a young woman.

She was so touched by seeing her grandmother as a young woman that she took the photos to her grandmother, and they had the best conversation ever. Her grandmother told Sarah what it was like being a young woman in that era, what it was like working at the department store, what her hopes and dreams were, and how those had changed over the years. The photos were a catalyst for a deep, deep conversation that will be cherished by both of them forever.

Her grandmother was in the hospital at the time. Sarah doesn’t know if her grandmother would have opened up as much as she did except for the photos, which evoked such fond memories for her grandmother. Ask relatives, “What do you remember? What was happening in this picture? Is this you? Is this another relative? Were you on vacation?” Any question about the photo opens up a much deeper conversation about what family means, how we care for each other, how we’re all growing and changing.

Save Family Photos seems to be giving people permission to start with one or two photos. Trying to tackle those boxes with years and years of photos can be paralyzing. I feel that I can be a catalyst for people to dig out these photos from wherever they’ve been hiding, to acknowledge their value, and to take that next step and use them to conjure up memories and bring out the family history stories.

About Rachel

In an inspiring correlation of the vintage and the contemporary, Rachel has taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by our omnipresent social media to found Save Family Photos on Instagram, an online community whose mission is to save family stories one photo at a time.

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