Why Photos Matter To Me (And Why We Must Print Them)

a wedding photographer’s personal story of photographic FAMILY legacy

 

 

As a wedding and portrait photographer, I’m often asked what sets me apart and why I’ve chosen the profession of documenting other people’s lives for a living. There are many reasons I’ve remained in this competitive and demanding industry for eight years. For example, photography allows me to combine my lifelong adoration of visual art with a genuine love of —and interest in— people of all types and stages of life. Weddings in particular are always fascinating to me, with high emotions and happy moments galore. I’m never bored at work! Photographers get a front row seat to our client’s lives on an intimate level in a way that many other vendors do not. But these reasons are not my only motivations for being drawn to this industry in the first place; my gravitation toward being a photographer has, in part, also grown out of my own personal shortage of family documentation and a mystery legacy that has only recently been recovered.

 Above: Some of the first photos I saw of my dad from his adolescense.

Above: Some of the first photos I saw of my dad from his adolescense.

I was raised without a father. Growing up, I knew almost nothing about him or his family of origin. As a kid, I would see old family photos on display in frames at my friends’ houses and feel envious. How lucky these friends were to know stories of their ancestors, and to be able to see the faces of those who lived before them! In seeing others’ abundance of story and legacy on display, I deeply felt the lack of my own.

Sometimes in life, when you lose something, you tend to value it even more. Because of my own incomplete family story, I came to deeply value what I did not have for myself: photos. A visual representation of legacy, of family members who lived and loved before me, and those because of whom I’m here today. I have visceral memories of thumbing through my friends’ parents’ wedding albums and relishing the experience of flipping through each page, excited to see what I could learn about their relatives from the photos we saw. I loved how one photo could tell me so much about its subjects. I yearned to learn about my own history in this way.

 Above: A photo of my paternal grandmother from her archives.

Above: A photo of my paternal grandmother from her archives.

It wasn’t until 2017, when I was in my mid-thirties, that I found and connected with my paternal family through DNA testing. It’s a long story, and a pretty lovely one that I’ll tell in more depth at another time. Once united with my dad’s family for the first time, one of the first things we did when we met was compare old photos. It was an important way we learned about each other. Spreading out photos on the dining table, we told stories and compared baby pictures; exclaimed in disbelief at our physical similarities, and looked at them in amazement and wonder. I made my family an album of some highlights from my life, old polaroids of me as a kid (embarrassing phases and all) and they brought some of their favorites to share. Through this process of getting to know each other, I am convinced that this experience would not have felt as satisfying and revelatory if we hadn’t had printed photos to share and compare.

 Above: A photo of my paternal great-grandmother Frances. I found my dimples!

Above: A photo of my paternal great-grandmother Frances. I found my dimples!

 Pictured: My paternal grandmother, Ann. Looking pretty adventurous!

Pictured: My paternal grandmother, Ann. Looking pretty adventurous!

 Above: A family photo of my grandmother's archives.

Above: A family photo of my grandmother's archives.

Through photos, though we were separated for decades, I was able to see my newly-discovered half-sister grow up. I now have visual proof which family line passed along their dimples to me, where in my lineage my strong love of music must have developed, and the expressions and other little things that have been passed along to me through this missing half of my family. I now have these puzzle pieces to my story, one that is now painted with vivid images where there was once only a blank page. 

 Above: The first image of my paternal great-grandmother Ada that I ever saw.

Above: The first image of my paternal great-grandmother Ada that I ever saw.

Printed photos have been instrumental in helping me learn about my family. They’ve also helped me realize something: The people who took the photos of my family members before we knew each other, the ones I’ve only recently been able to lay eyes on for the first time, couldn’t have ever known that the images would be used in this way. They wouldn’t have known that their casual snap of the shutter some 75 or more years ago would mean so much to me today.

Photos we take are often not truly for ourselves; they’re for the loved ones that come along after us. The photos I take for clients are not necessarily for them, but for their families and folks who may not yet exist.
 Above: Looking through some images from my paternal grandpa's family archives from his upbringing in Chicago.

Above: Looking through some images from my paternal grandpa's family archives from his upbringing in Chicago.

 Above: A collage of family pictures from my grandpa Martin's archives.

Above: A collage of family pictures from my grandpa Martin's archives.

 Grandpa Martin lookin' dapper back in the day!

Grandpa Martin lookin' dapper back in the day!

 My favorite photo of my newly-discovered little sister. The cuteness!

My favorite photo of my newly-discovered little sister. The cuteness!

 Grandpa Martin playing music.

Grandpa Martin playing music.

 Above: My paternal grandparents in the early 1960's.

Above: My paternal grandparents in the early 1960's.

Because of my own unique family story and mystery, I was drawn to create this type of imagery for others. Because of my own missing legacy, I felt the responsibility to help people realize the importance of what I once did not have. And now that I have what I always hoped for, I can tell you that it means everything. 

If these photos had been taken by a cell phone, and someone had forgotten to back up their device regularly, as so many of us do today, there is a good chance these photos could have been lost forever. All digital storage has a shelf life. All hard drives will fail eventually, guaranteed. But these prints? They stood the test of time, endured through multiple decades and locations, and made their way through time... right into my hands. I know firsthand the value of a printed photo.

All hard drives will fail eventually, guaranteed. But these prints? They stood the test of time, endured through multiple decades and locations, and made their way through time... right into my hands.
 My first introduction to a slew of family photos. Photo taken by my husband during my first father's day celebrated with my dad and grandpa.

My first introduction to a slew of family photos. Photo taken by my husband during my first father's day celebrated with my dad and grandpa.

So take photos of your family and print them. Choose a film camera (yes, they still exist!) or make it a habit of printing your favorite digital photos every month. Put them in a box or an album or a frame. Make it a priority. Ask your friendly neighborhood photographer where you can print your photos. They'd be happy to help point you in the right direction.

We all have the potential to be legacy-makers — and archivists. For me, and so many great photographers I know, it’s an honor to play a part in that for others. Because I personally know that photos have power, I am honored to continue documenting families so that they can share their story someday. Don't let your photos die on a computer. Who knows? The casual snapshot you print of your loved one could end up being someone’s favorite photo someday.