On January 3rd, just a toe step into 2017, the New York Times Magazine ran an article by the English writer Geoff Dyer entitled, “The Mysteries of Our Family Snapshots.” The article was illustrated with a red, blue, and green-popping 1960s family photo. Mr. Dyer caught my attention with this sentence:
When my dad died five months later, I became both the only surviving person from the picture and the only person who might know anything about it.
He described precisely the predicament that spurs so many people to knock on StoryKeep’s door.
In that moment, I recalled sitting in a kitchen with a woman during our first client visit, and she blurted out, “I seriously have trouble sleeping at night, Jamie. I know it’s crazy, but I wake up thinking about these dusty boxes of photos. I’m the only one who knows anything about them.”
I’ve often wondered how it can be possible for something so amateur as a family snapshot to be so powerful. Take a look at some of your family photos – but not the professional ones in shiny frames. Root around for a shoebox filled with photos. Pull a few from the top. You’ll notice that they contain objects (your orange/brown sweater from high school), places (the pink dining room!) and moments (your fifth birthday party) so important to your inner being that merely looking at them stops time.
Dyer writes about his mom’s gesture in the photo: “My mum is covering up her right wrist with her left hand to hide a birthmark. She always did that. That gesture defined her.”
I believe it is the lack of curation, the relatively haphazard “snap,” of our family snapshots that provides some answers to our personal mysteries. In them, we see furniture, toys, old TV sets that were around in our childhood homes, people who stopped by, our parents and siblings in their “natural states.” This is why I adore family snapshots, why I take pleasure in weaving them into a family’s film. They remind you of what you forgot.
Adding these quiet mysteries of family photos to a professional film…oh, bless me. That’s like mixing and matching a sharp fashion piece with a vintage item. Such an outfit shows your personal style. It’s like serving a perfect martini alongside a stack of Triscuits. That’s just fun. That’s something you can dig into.
As we age, we appreciate family photos in new ways. Dyer notes what the poet George Oppen once said about aging: “What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”
As you move into another year, your family photos will come with you. How can you expand and pass on their meaning?
Looking for a last minute Christmas gift? Forbes put together a collection of “12 Swanky Christmas Gifts Too Rich for Santa.” StoryKeep comes just after La Terre Bleue Yves Klein by Lalique and before The Parking Club with this write up:
And now for something completely different—A Film Starring Your Home. Starting at $40,000, boutique New York production company StoryKeep creates broadcast-quality custom films and keepsakes—documenting your home’s unique story, history and relevance to your family. StoryKeep’s award-winning cinematographers travel on-location to chronicle your family’s unique personality (via in-depth interviews, digital video and photography shoots) and your estate’s special architectural heritage. There’s also an option to add a $20,000 museum-quality heirloom book (coffee table-style) that highlights your personal and residential genealogy for future generations to appreciate. Think of it as Biography, where your estate and family are co-stars. Prices range from $40,000 to $200,000, depending on your preferred package. www.storykeep.com
When I was nine years old, I learned about my biological father for the first time. Up to that point, I didn’t think much about where I came from or my family connections. As you can imagine, the news about my “real” dad shocked me. I spoke with my fourth grade teacher Ms. Bienvenue about the matter. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember this: she validated my desire to know my own history.
Perhaps your backstory isn’t as dramatic as mine (or maybe it is in other ways!). Nevertheless, over the last couple of decades, I’ve transformed this once upsetting news into my life’s mission: documenting family stories. I’m sure you’ve told your child a story to impart a lesson – or your parents told you a few growing up. Humans tell stories. Stories captivate our imagination. Perhaps more importantly, stories are embedded with the values we want to pass on.
Stories seem to be the “sugar to help the medicine go down.”
Talking to your children soberly about values like tenacity, courage or forgiveness can be less effective than telling a story about a person they know who lived through a real situation. In fact, hearing and telling family stories can strengthen our own character, as people and as parents. Our family’s narrative has the power to motivate and support us in becoming the person we are aiming to be.
A few years ago, I interviewed a woman named Nina. One of my favorite stories of hers was about racing sports cars up mountain passes in Switzerland. “I loved the Maseratis!” She was a teenager at the time and was racing against a bunch of guys. As she recalled the memory, she laughed, threw her head back and looked younger than her 70-something years. What were her grandchildren going to learn when they heard her story? Don’t let people tell you what girls “should” and “shouldn’t” do. Be adventurous!
This past year, we conducted 52 interviews with friends and family of a respected couple, Richard and Brenda. Each person was invited to share stories to pay homage to them. The story I loved most came from the least likely source: a CPA for Rich’s company. He talked about coming to Rich upon noticing an unpaid bill. The bill had been submitted to the company two years prior. The CPA remarked that no one would remember and “maybe we just let it go?” Rich shook his head: “Call and see if it’s been paid. If it hasn’t, pay it. They did the work, pay them for their work.” What will his grandchildren take away when they hear this story? Be honest. Don’t cheat, even if you can get away with it.
Passing down family stories strengthens your child’s character (even if grandpa wasn’t the most stellar human being, there are lessons in there, too!) Ultimately, nothing is more valuable than teaching our children how to become good human beings. Stories help the medicine go down.
– Jamie Yuenger, StoryKeep Founder
That’s what we thought when we saw the cover of Modern Luxury‘s December 2016 issue. Our cover girl Katie Holmes couldn’t have done a better job priming the pump. Holmes, the respected actress and model, makes her directorial debut this month with “All We Had“, a film centered around a mother’s struggle to make a better life for her daughter. StoryKeep was perfectly captured on page 28: A Gift of Legacy.
When we work with a family to create their documentary, they often want the film to center on their parents’ life stories. “I’d love for my mom to discusses her beginnings, her struggles, her career…”
“Make sure to ask my dad about his parents and what it was like growing up.”
You can make your own directorial debut… your parents making a better life for you and your children is definitely a compelling story.
The following letter was sent to those subscribed to the StoryKeep email list. You can sign up for our monthly email at the bottom of this page.
In light of our recent election results, I felt the desire write to you, those on the StoryKeep email list. I have zero intention of sharing my political ideas here, but rather, I felt moved to share a few very human thoughts.
You’re on this email list because you expressed interest in the stories of your own family or in the importance of life stories. Maybe you’ve even created a project with us. With all this in mind, I can safely guess that you are a person who seeks connection with others. You believe in the power of listening. You believe in honoring others and passing on values to your children.
I hope that despite how you voted yesterday or felt this morning, you found yourself pausing and wondering. I hope, like me, you sat and felt concerned with how our communities and nation have fallen short of really seeing each other’s issues, understanding one another’s opinions. I trust that whether you were elated, distraught, joyful or depressed this morning, you were also pricked by the pain of our disconnect. It’s one thing for a candidate to win or lose, it’s quite another thing to be reminded that we have not truly seen and heard each other as neighbors.
I founded StoryKeep because I believe in the fundamental power of listening to someone. Listening is not just hearing; listening is stopping to really take someone in. I often think that our work of producing films and books is the icing on the cake. The real offering we hold out is a moment to honor someone by saying, “I consider your life and story invaluable,” and then listening.
My role at StoryKeep gives me the chance to sit and converse with people who I might not have otherwise met. It is my job to draw out meaningful conversations. To be honest, the task has not always been easy. I’ve heard ideas that challenge me, which have even made me feel uncomfortable. But, those moments have also been one of my job’s greatest gifts. Those are the moments when I, as a person, have the chance to pause, to wonder, to maybe see more deeply, or to see differently.
On the surface, StoryKeep should have nothing to say about this political moment. But when I dig down deep, I think our work of listening is actually at the core of what we need to do more as a nation. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
I look forward to more listening in the days ahead.
I could make something spectacular from one woman’s life story: my own. – Jamie Yuenger
A Women’s Thing is a quarterly print and digital magazine dedicated to reshaping society’s ideas of what “women’s things” are. They endeavor to highlight the women making history today. In February, they got in touch to see if StoryKeep’s founder, Jamie Yuenger, might submit a personal story. AWT had chosen the theme “Wild” for their eighth edition. Considering how wild it can be to follow your passion, start a business, and do it all in New York City, Jamie submitted this short, personal essay:
StoryKeep Founder Jamie Yuenger is teaching a course this fall entitled “Documenting Family Stories in Print, Audio or Film.” She will teach you the basics of interviewing your loved ones and using materials at your disposal.
Have you been wanting to document a part of your family history? Is your house filled with photos and videos that you’d like to curate and make into something special? If you would like to highlight one person’s story – or a larger collective history – this is your chance!
Her course is part of City Lore’s Urban Classroom series taught on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The six sessions will meet on Tuesday evenings: October 11th, 18th, 25th, and November 1st and 8th with an additional session to be announced. 6:30-8:30pm
“My parents met on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, in a hospital in Paris. The whole city was celebrating the end of the First World War!
My father had been in the trenches on the French front lines for two years, serving as a 1st lieutenant in the 2nd Division of the Army. After being seriously wounded, he spent two month recovering. He met my mom in the hospital hallway, just as he was being discharged.
Mother was a YMCA girl, the USO of the time. She and a friend were bringing flowers given to them by a flower vender on the street: ‘Viva Les Americans!’. They ran into each other a day later, at which point he asked her to the Folies Bergère, and obviously it went on from there.
It turned out that both of them were keeping a diary. They describe meeting each other, their continuing courtship in Paris, through the army’s occupation in Germany, and then after the War, life in New York City. They were married in 1922.
These diaries have brought their story vividly alive for me; their personalities coming through in an unbelievable way, always reinforcing my feelings of my great fortune of having such wonderful parents.”
– Phoebe Ballard Ford
On this Independence Day, we are honored to share Phoebe’s story of her parents and their incredible war time diaries. StoryKeep has collaborated with Phoebe to build an archive, produce a feature-length tribute film, and produce an accompanying book.