For most of my life, I looked at family photos as most others did – they were little snippets of time. I would pick up a few envelopes of prints and flip through the 20 or 36 photos inside, still safely ensconced in their designated sleeve right next to their corresponding negatives.
They would still be looking as fresh as they did the day I got them back from Walgreens, Seattle Prints works, or the myriad of other photo processing labs we all used for so many years.
Each envelope would contain memories from a specific event (like a wedding) or vacation (like a summer trip), or perhaps it was just a window into a certain week or day I had decided to carry my camera around with me.
Around the holidays, I might pick up one of the family albums my mom kept of her and her family growing up in Brooklyn. Each year I would ask her about the people I didn’t recognize, and each year I would forget most of them until the ritual would repeat itself a year later.
This was all fine and good, but the result was never really seeing the events of my life as they had unfolded, they were instead presented as compartmentalized pockets randomly picked up and viewed. That all changed when two things happened: I got older and I digitized all my family photos.
Shortly after I had turned 60, I set out to scan and digitize many of the older prints and albums I had accumulated or been handed down.
Having your photos digitized allows you to view them easier than a large collection of prints. You can see a lot of them at once and arrange and re-arrange them as you wish.
I started to place all my scanned photos in chronological order, and something very interesting happened – I started to see a life, my life, and that of my parents as well. Not the little bits and pieces as I had described before, but the whole thing, from start to finish, and it was remarkable.
To really see one’s life unfold from the beginning to the present is a very unique and fascinating adventure. I started with the baby pictures, childhood, teen years, and then into adulthood. Schools, vacations, jobs, friends, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, all in the order they happened.
Our memories are not linear, but when the photos, all there and displayed as a timeline, line before you, a view of one’s life becomes possible which you can’t accomplish any other way.
It was also around this time that I was looking to gain some perspective on my life. As my memory went back over the years, I had started to ask myself questions such as had I had done this or that differently how would it have worked out? Did I have any regrets? What would I have changed?
Not surprisingly, the photos I had begun to look at started to answer some of those questions. They provided a spark, and some long-forgotten memories began coming back to me.
But what’s interesting is that the photos not only brought back the memories of the events they portrayed, they helped me to recall the times in between those events, the circumstances and life situations that led up to those events.
Those in-between times are the bits of life that can be so easily forgotten, and those are often the things that made us decide which path to take. We may remember many of the events from our lives, but we can easily forget why we did those things.
Based on the photos, I began to write down the stories I remembered or had been told to me by other family members. These were stories about myself, but also of my mother and father, stories from their childhood and even how they met.
I started to post them on social media at first and then decided to place them on my website for others to read as well. I called it the Legacy Project.
The response was so enthusiastic, not just from other family members, but from friends and even strangers who felt inspired by my efforts and wanted to start doing the same thing with their family pictures.
Companies are starting to develop a host of story-telling apps to help people tell their family histories. Many of them, like Joyflips (which I’ve used and like), combine voice recordings and photos. But it’s easy enough to just start writing down what you can or recording your voice as you tell a story or two.
However you do it, the most important thing is your process for connecting with your photos and the stories behind them.
If you were to ask me my biggest takeaway from this, I would say that after looking at all the stories and photos, I really had no regrets about any of the decisions or things I did in my life.
I look at my life now, and while not perfect, I’ve built a good life for myself. I’ve met and known an amazing array of people and had some pretty good adventures along with all the challenges and tragedies.
Had anything been different, had I made even the smallest change in anything along the way, I might not have what I have now or the memories of a full life. Not that we can ever change the past, but it’s nice to know I don’t want to.
There is a deep satisfaction that comes from putting your family history in order. What was once a mish-mosh of photos and stories can become a cohesive chronology of a rich family history. When it comes to your own life story, remember you are the only one uniquely able to tell it.
How many boxes of family photos do you own? Have you ever attempted to organize them? Do you have them digitized? What stories do you think will come out if you organize the photos in linear sequence? Please share in the comments below!