The Past Inspires the Present: Why Old Photographs Teach us to be better storytellers
Last Thanksgiving, my partner Jack and I sat at his grandparents’ dining room table and stared out at a sea of strangers. These strangers were not our dinner guests; they were the fading and crinkled faces on hundreds of old photographs spread over the table. They poured out of shoeboxes and albums, across a plastic plaid tablecloth and into our laps, bringing dust and untold histories with them. They are pictures of the past. And they are reminders that the past inspires the present. It was in that moment that we realized, old photographs teach us to be better storytellers.
As we sifted through these vintage photos, the strangers’ faces that we unearthed and sat quietly inspecting were not really strangers at all. They were kin, but still we did not recognize them. Jack’s family story, unlike my own, is one full of guesswork. While my family has sat relatively still for a few centuries, his family’s story is that of recent immigrants; people uprooted by war and disquiet in Eastern Europe, then shuffled about on the Eastern Coast of the United States before putting down roots in the Mid-Atlantic…and somewhere on the long path from Rostov-on-Don to Margate City, New Jersey pieces of this family’s story fell into shadow.
There are nearly as many chapters remembered as chapters forgotten, timelines pick up and disappear without conclusion, names are lost, dates unrecorded. And if we had hoped to fill in the blank spaces with clues from these photographs, then we had hoped in vain. Because what we found on that table was not a careful record of the facts of Jack’s family story, not mile-markers or footprints. It was instead an opportunity to build our own meaning, informed by the physical record but not confined to it.
The magic of old photographs (or photographs at all, really) is that they don’t give you the answers. While written histories prescribe specific significance to people and places and events, images have the beauty of being malleable in meaning.
By giving us only a record of a single instant, photographs allow us the opportunity to imagine the before and the after, to feel with our own senses what the greater narrative might be.
A few weeks ago a photograph of my own grandfather was shared on Save Family Photos, and while I do know many of the details of my grandfather’s life, that photograph is a perfect example of how an image that’s simply a snapshot can become a symbol of resilience and intrepidness for future generations.
It is because of experiences like this that the family pictures that fill so many dusty attics are some of our most invaluable tools for preserving the art of storytelling. Our old photographs have the power to transcend language and circumstance, provoking the innate storyteller in each of us, and bringing us together in a sort of conspiracy of empathy with the past.
Jack and Liberty met in the admissions office of The Maryland Institute College of Art, while they were both working as Student Ambassadors. Endless cups of coffee, rolls of film, and late nights later they are happy to say they’re living the dream of helping passionate people create authentic brands – using photography, filmmaking, and graphic design. You can find them online and on Instagram.