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?
by Lisa Madison, Cofounder of StoryKeep
It’s not every day that you get to cry with a stranger in happiness and wonder. I think the world would probably be a better place if it was, though.
I read The New York Times Dining section over oatmeal yesterday morning. There was a story about tipping, a story about ladies that lunch, and, down on the bottom of page D6, was a story of a Persian takeout corner called Taste of Persia NYC in a pizzeria in Flatiron. This is the city where a food sensation can happen in the corner of another restaurant. It was a lovely little piece and I tucked it away on the long list in my head of “food to try in NYC” and got on with my morning. It just so happened that my morning included a stop at Adorama to pick up some video equipment and lo-and-behold, as I walked toward my destination at approximately 10AM, I looked up and there was the little Persian takeout counter on 18th Street.
I walked in. The New York Times article was sitting open on the small counter, and behind it, stood a man in a striking red chef’s jacket surveying his good fortune. I pointed to the article and exclaimed, “I saw the piece! Congratulations!” He looked up and with such humility and grace, said “Thank you.” and so began my friendship with the owner and chef, Saeed Pourkay.
Saeed is from Iran and immigrated to the U.S. 38 years ago. He has gone through a number of jobs, one of which (as I understood it) was designing typefaces for large billboards in New York City before Microsoft made fonts available to the masses. I couldn’t catch the entire spectrum of career changes that this man has been through, but seven months ago, he somehow came to set up this small takeout corner, no more than 10′ x 10′, wrapped with red signage and graced with large silver vats of dishes that smelled of pomegranate molasses, rose water and jasmine rice. A week ago, Saeed was only days away from what many of us would consider financial ruin. Today was the day that he was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, the decider of restaurant fortune. Today he was counting blessings. This is the kind of story we all love.
Saeed explained that he usually uploaded a video of himself to Facebook explaining the menu for the day but thought that today should be a different kind of video, to thank the writer from The New York Times. I offered to hold his mini ipad while he spoke. The video was too long to send straight to Facebook and Saeed couldn’t remember his YouTube account details, so I offered to use mine. When it finally was posted to YouTube, I helped him put the video on Facebook; he dictated the message he wanted to include; “We all have a passion. Follow yours and the universe will help you.” This is when he began to count me in his blessings for the day.
He told me about two instances where a bird had flown into his life and brought good luck; the first was in Iran, and as he held the bird in his hands he made a wish, which manifested itself weeks later. The second time was just last week, when a bird flew into the pizzeria. Saeed caught it and held it in his hands and whispered a wish before letting it go into the big city. That’s when the Times reporter walked in. He went over to his cash register, pulled the change drawer up and pulled out a feather. “You are my little bird today,” he said to me, holding up the feather. It was a reminder to me to count MY blessings and to continue to follow MY dream, but also to look up, with humility and grace, and connect with the world around me.