The Real Story Behind Instagram’s Most Fascinating Historical Fiction

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Back in 1998, my friend Bryan and I were poking around an antique store when I found two boxes of photos. What I found that day was well-documented volume after well-documented volume of black and white photos full of women in bathing suits and dance costumes. Women traveling all over the world doing what they so clearly loved to do—dance! The connecting point? One woman named Estelle Burke (née Ester Burkowitz).

I pulled photos from their well-documented photo albums and, I confess, manhandled them a bit. Yes, it was the antithesis of John Maloof’s treatment of uncovering Vivian Maier’s work, and yes, I know I shouldn’t have handled them that way. (Blushing.)

I understood what memories were most important to Estelle by the pinholes in the photos and, if in albums, the great care she took organizing the images with dates, names, places, and even who wanted how many copies of which photo. The sizes were also a giveaway—quite a few 8 x 10s—and the stuff they wrote on them…. just, wow! From cryptic messages (“To Estelle, though in thought misled, I am still your friend. Love, Louise”) to the hilarious (“To Ester, the ‘everyday I quit secretary’ Love, Your Boss). And she must have had access to a dark room, because there are a few prints that reminded me of my days experimenting with prints in my time as a photographer’s assistant.

It was easy to discover that Estelle grew up in Rochester, New York. She and her sister teamed up with another set of dancing sisters. After the other three married and settled down, Estelle joined another outfit and kept touring. After World War II, Estelle signed up for The USO and jetted off to the Pacific Rim. I’m going to stop there because that’s where we are on Instagram as I write this.

And that leads me to this—if you aren’t following Estelle yet, here’s a primer:

You can follow the story #BingeScroll style from the beginning to present, or hit it up as a #MicroStory. You’ll see that it’s historical fiction, but if you’re a stickler for period pieces sticking to the exact language of the day, you might be disappointed that I am not aiming for perfection.

To me, Estelle has her own voice that bleeds between eras. After all, she is posting to us (her “present” to our “present”) from some magical device on a time-bending platform that she knows we call “social media.” She’ll point out that she “can’t see you guys very well” but she does know about Throwback Thursday and even participated once. She thinks that a swell idea. I confess…I am hoping that people will be interested enough in the hints she drops about the events leading up to World War II, during, and after. These are situations that most people don’t learn about—you know, Night of the Broken Glass vs. the more well-known stuff like Hitler’s art school rejection. Usually they are the first hash tag in the series. To discuss them further, she writes about them on Facebook like a diary entry and provide links for further study.

I’m finding some magic in this piece of rebuilding her story.

A few times, I’ve thought, “I better get back to hinting about the rise of Hitler, she was a Jewish refugee after all.” Inevitably, there will be some horrific atrocity that happened on that very day. The day I wanted to end World War II, I googled it. Sure enough, the peace papers were inked exactly seventy years before.

One last thing: Estelle says “hello” and she hopes you like the pictures she snapped.

About the Author: Emily Capps is a writer and content strategist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and small menagerie of animals. 

You can follow along with her adventures, via Estelle Burke, on Instagram and Facebook.

Her greatest accomplishment to date? Luring Dita Von Teese into following Estelle. What a coup!


Christina M. says:

September 21, 2017 at 10:28 am

This is a wonderful concept!
More than a creative approach of the social media platform, more than a tribute to the women of previous generations, this is a subtle and yet poignant commentary of contemporary events.


Rachel LaCour Niesen says:

September 21, 2017 at 4:18 pm

Emily has such a gift for writing and piecing together narratives!


Emily capps says:

September 21, 2017 at 5:19 pm

thank you both for your kind words. I’m thrilled you like it.


Emily Capps says:

September 24, 2017 at 9:13 pm

Thank you both for the kind words.


art & Kay Guilmet says:

October 1, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Em: i remember having dinner with you and aunt kay soon after these images became a part of your life. your interest in them was inspiring. You are a gift and will always remain like a daughter to Aunt kay and i…. god bless


Rachel LaCour Niesen says:

October 9, 2017 at 4:37 pm

love this!


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