Rachel LaCour-Niesen is on a mission to save family stories, one photo at a time. Her brainchild, Save Family Photos, has been featured in Kinfolk, the New Yorker, Everyone, Good Housekeeping and more. Today, she talks with Design Aglow about photography, family history, and preservation….and why she has made this work her passion.
Design Aglow: Hi Rachel! We are huge fans of Save Family Photos and the work you are doing to preserve family histories. Can you share your past career and how it launched you into this project?
Rachel: My background is in photojournalism and my training involved equal parts storytelling and curation. Great photographs tell stories and careful curation helps convey those stories in simple, powerful ways. At my core, I’m a storyteller who believes photographs play a vital role in preserving world history and family history. That’s actually why I chose to study photojournalism; I wanted a front row seat to world history. A decade later, when I stumbled upon wedding photography, I quickly traded my front row seat to world history for a front row seat to family history. Photographing a milestone like a wedding was an ideal way for me to merge my interest in storytelling with my love of family history. For over a decade, I photographed hundreds of weddings for families. I was honored to be a family historian with a camera. Now, as I look back, I realize that my dual experience as a photojournalist and a wedding photographer perfectly prepared me to launch Save Family Photos. My mission reflects my training and my passion: to save and share family stories, one photo at a time.
Design Aglow: How has Save Family Photos been received in this age of “all my photos are on my phone”?
Rachel: In the age of social media and instant gratification, I actually think there’s a deep hunger to return to our roots and gather around something tangible like a printed photo. There’s magic in holding photographs in your hands, in passing them around the table with family members. As we create content at warp speed (hello, Instagram and Facebook!) we’re amassing more data than ever. In fact, we’re drowning in uncurated photos that may never escape our phones or hard drives. I think photos – especially family photos – deserve to be enjoyed in tangible form. Analog photos trigger such powerful emotional responses in all of us. Most families have hundreds of disorganized analog photos deteriorating in their homes. These photos hold valuable family memories and are highly susceptible to damage and loss. To historians, family photos exist on the margins of global history — they aren’t considered “newsworthy” enough to be catalogued in the National Archives. Yet for families, photos are visible accounts of personal history. Within each collection, there are icons of ancestry in the form of birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.
Design Aglow: What is your goal for Save Family Photos? Any fun stories about how you know you are succeeding?
Rachel: My goal is simply to create a community that’s passionate about saving and share family stories, one photo at time. There are countless, priceless photographs hidden in attics and basements all over the world. Those photographs are artifacts and passports to a place called MEMORY. We must rally around those photographs and make a concerted effort to rescue them from deterioration, theft, natural disaster and loss. Those photos are in danger; as a result, so is family history.
National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William Adams recently said, “We know that America’s cultural heritage isn’t found only in libraries and museums, but in our homes, in our family histories, and the stories and objects we pass down to our children.”
Design Aglow: What is your favorite image & story of all time?
Rachel: Wow, that’s tough! The entire community archive of Save Family Photos is a treasure trove of character studies and is quickly becoming an incredible sociological archive of snapshots of our heritage. Yet there is one story – and a series of portraits – that stands out to me. When the Save Family Photos Instagram project was still in its infancy, community member Sara Pupa shared a stunning series of old-fashioned photo booth portraits of her grandmother. In each photograph, her grandmother gazes outward and forward, her face full of youthful hope. The photo received a record number of likes, which delighted Sara. The response the photos received also delighted someone else: Sara's grandmother.
In her heartfelt message to me, Sara wrote, "I don't think many people realize the value of family photos until it's too late. In hindsight they wish they would have asked where or when the photo was taken - and maybe they'll never find out."
The day after Sara shared the photo on @savefamilyphotos, her grandmother suffered a mild heart attack. When Sara went to visit her grandmother in the hospital, she took something other than flowers.
Inside Sara's bag was an envelope full of old family photos. "I didn't want to be that person who doesn't have a story to tell when they share photos of their ancestors," Sara said.
She continued, "My grandma was nearly in tears when I spread the photos out in front of her. I found out that she was under the impression that she had thrown out all the photos. She said it had been her biggest regret. Needless to say, she was over the moon when she found out they were safe with me. We sat for hours talking about each photo, and I learned things about my grandma that I never would have known otherwise."
The simplicity of that statement tells us a bit more about the value of family photos. They're keys to unlocking conversations with family members; they're glue that holds our stories together. When was the last time you took an envelope of old family photos to your grandparent's home and asked them about each memory? Have you ever spent an afternoon asking your grandmother about her experience growing up, as seen in vintage photos of her childhood?
But Sara still says it best:
"If you hadn't shared the photo of my grandma on Save Family Photos, it might not have occurred to me to ask her about them. Ultimately, sharing a few photos prompted me to sit down with my grandma and have one of the most meaningful conversations I've ever had with her. Not only do I have beautiful photos to share with my children someday – I will also have stories to tell them."
Sara’s experience reminds us that old family photos are more than two-dimensional pieces of paper. They're tangible reminders of family relationships. They're records of life experiences. They're memories made visible.
Design Aglow: What is your wish for today’s families regarding taking photos?
Rachel: My biggest and boldest wish is that families would take time to print their photographs and live with them. I mean, really live with them! Photographs are a living, breathing archive. They are meant to be displayed, shared, passed around the table, enjoyed and enjoyed some more. Whether it’s a stack of prints, an old-school slideshow in the backyard, or a bunch of paperback books, I hope all families recognize the value of their personal photographic histories. They’re worth saving and share for future generations.
Can you imagine never having the magical experience of discovering a box of family photos? It’s like finding buried treasure! I would love to guarantee that experiences like that aren’t lost in the future. Somehow, I can’t imagine sorting through old hard drives to be quite as magical as opening up a shoebox of printed photos. :)
Beyond printing their photos, families should also be mindful of archiving and curation. There are a bunch of great cloud-based archiving services that are worth checking out. It’s so important to backup your current photos - plus digitize and archive the analog ones! Commingling them in one place, with some sense of organization and curation, will ensure that future generations can have the magical experience of discovering their history on “film.”
Design Aglow: We know you just had your first child, congrats, mama! How do you envision yourself chronicling his life with images?
Rachel: This is my favorite – and the most difficult – question! I feel an enormous sense of responsibility and inspiration because we just welcomed our first child, a little boy named Edward, to our family. We want him to know that his story started before him.
Our son’s little face has reignited my passion for Save Family Photos and is what motivates me daily to keep Save Family Photos growing. I want Edward to know he is a branch on a family tree that extends far beyond us. His nursery is filled with family photos, including two simple black-and-white prints of his namesakes. My husband and I want Edward to be surrounded by family images.
We will work hard to document moments in his life - from the simplest memories like his first bath to major milestones like graduations. I know we’ll grab whatever cameras are closest to us at the moment, which may mean a fair share of iPhone images as well as analog Polaroids. The most important goal is to catch the fleeting moments and craft a story of his life.
We will also create books of these curated moments, so he can look back later and see what his first days, weeks and months were like. You only get one childhood; we want to remember it as much as possible.
Design Aglow: How can our audience get involved with Save Family Photos?
Rachel: That’s simple! Join thousands of other folks who are submitting beautiful family photos and stories to be featured on @savefamilyphotos. You can share your photos and stories by emailing them to me - email@example.com
The Save Family Photos Instagram feed and Facebook page are virtual campfires. They’re places where we can gather and share our stories, one photo at a time.
The tradition of oral history, of sitting around a campfire and sharing stories, is often overlooked in the digital era. That’s why one-of-a-kind analog media – like Polaroids and Kodachrome slides – are priceless artifacts of our existence. They proclaim to future generations, “We were here! Remember us!”
I hope your audience members will get involved and join the campfire!