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.