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?
Many families we work with want to capture somebody later in life. Kelly, on the other hand, wanted StoryKeep to help capture a moment in her daughter’s life and her reflections on being “Ivy’s mom.”
So for one year, StoryKeep gave Kelly ideas for recording the little moments in Ivy’s life – bathtime, reading together, playing with friends – as she grew from a bouncy toddler into a little girl. (We loaned Kelly a professional audio recorder for this.) Listening back over the recordings, Kelly was amazed by how much Ivy’s voice changed in just half a year.
A single mother by choice, Kelly also wanted to make sure that Ivy would always be able to listen to her mom’s voice. If Ivy ever wondered, “What was my birth story?” or “What was it like when I was little?” she would have these recordings. With this in mind, we periodically recorded Kelly’s thoughts and stories about motherhood.
This is a 5-minute snippet (approved by Kelly, of course) of the two 45-minute audio pieces we produced together. As you listen to it, consider the precious people in your life. Now’s the time to capture their fleeting moments and memories. Your StoryKeep project would make the ultimate graduation, birthday, or Mother’s Day gift.
We’re kicking off 2016 with a new video series about the excitement and joy of capturing family stories.
Each bite-sized clip features StoryKeep founder Jamie Yuenger sharing a personal story or an experience working with a family. (Learn more about Jamie.)
Today’s episode, “Peach Slurping,” is about a silly game Jamie played with her younger brother, Jake, when they were kids.
What silly games did you play as a kid? Share your story in the comments section, or on our Facebook page. We look forward to hearing them.
People ask me all the time, “How did you come up with the idea for StoryKeep?”.
They usually lean in and repeat it as a question.
Lou Zandoli is an ornery guy. His parents were from Italy. When he finds himself at his son and daughter-in-law’s house in Brooklyn, New York, he peels cups and cups of fresh garlic and puts the unclothed cloves in Ball jars that he stashes in their freezer. He’s got a gold grill (yes, a teeth grill!). And he is the man who changed everything for me.
When I met Lou, I had gone to school at the Salt Institute for documentary radio production (think This American Life, Studio 360, human interest stories). Following that, I had landed a much envied internship at WNYC, an NPR affiliate in New York City. I was later hired as an Assistant Producer. But, after spending obscene amounts of money on radio school and supporting a radio career dream, I realized I was unhappy. The whole radio station, journalism thing wasn’t doing it for me.
Around that time, a dear friend of mine named Nicole and I went out for lunch. Afterward, as I was pulling over to drop her at her door, she asked me whether I would entertain the idea of recording her father-in-law’s life story, Lou’s story. She wanted to capture his fascinating history so her children could appreciate what he had lived through and done with his life. “He’s got a memory like a steel-trap,” she said.
The idea felt like warm jelly in my chest.
We came to a mutual sum. I started within a week’s time.
I conducted nine or ten interviews with Lou. He told me about the Depression. He told me about his childhood in Queens, New York. He told me about his military career. He told me grand tales about the Mohawks Athletic Club. He recalled his two children’s births, and later on, his present work in China.
I think it was the third recording session when it hit me. Something called out to me.
“This is your life’s work.”
It was the telling, the listening, the collecting, the archiving, the sharing, the heirloom-making. It all made sense to me, and everything in my body said, “Now is the time.”
That was in March of 2010. By April of 2011, I had founded StoryKeep.
That is the story of StoryKeep. At least the beginning.
I deal with nervous people a lot.
What do I have to say that’s interesting?
What will the end product look like?
How’s my hair?
Can we edit that out?
As StoryKeep’s Founder and head Interviewer, I have the great fortune of talking with fascinating people who aren’t regularly in front of a camera or an audio recorder. Nearly 100% of the individuals I sit down with are nervous about “documenting” their life stories. In fact, the only person who ever looked “calm as a clam” was a woman who worked as a TV anchor!
In 2013, Wendy’s son and daughter-in-law contacted StoryKeep. They wanted their five-year-old daughter to know how incredible her grandmother was as a younger woman, what adventures Wendy had during during the Peace Corps, what values Wendy held – things their little girl or may not learn from her grandma directly. Wendy and I met on a sunny morning in her son’s kitchen. As Wendy shared her life story with me (at least some of the important and interesting bits), she loosened up. She looked more like herself. She got into little stories she hadn’t planned to tell but were the ones she was meant to tell – to document, to pass on. After we were done, I asked Wendy if there was anything she wanted to add, anything she hadn’t yet shared.
This video is what she said. It’s short and sweet. If you’re feeling nervous, take a look.