A Quest to Save Family Stories, One Photo at a Time
Save Family Photos is a site curated by Rachel LaCour Niesen who is committed to helping people save and share their family photo legacies. Here she talks about this mission, why it means so much to her, and how people can overcome roadblocks to preserving priceless memories.
SC: Tell us about your mission at Save Family Photos.
RLN: Our mission is simple – to save family stories, one photo at a time. That mission is carried out largely through social media. Our Instagram feed and Facebook page are virtual campfires; people gather around to share their stories.
In my experience, family photos are one of the best ways to trigger stories. They spark our imaginations, they tap into our memories and they harness the power of nostalgia. And that’s why photos are like glue; they hold our stories together. And of course, every family has boxes and drawers full of old photos. Those photos mark milestones like birthdays, weddings, graduations, reunions and holidays. Most family snapshots capture simple, fleeting moments that showcase the beauty of everyday life. I think those photos are priceless; they reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary. They remind you that your story started before you. My team and I are committed to encouraging families to preserve these priceless stories for future generations.
SC: Was there any one event or experience that motivated you to start your site?
RLN: Yes, there was. And even to this day, there is one event that propels me forward with my mission to help families save their stories: the death of my grandfather. My maternal grandfather was a larger-than-life character; he was gregarious and took up a lot of space, both physically and emotionally. So when he died, he left a space open in my heart that will probably always remain open. As I grieved his death, I wanted to celebrate the legacy he left behind. So I started scanning pictures – from his childhood to military service to marrying my grandmother and raising my mom. There were so many memories, imprinted onto film. But there was a lot I didn’t know. Some of the photos were like breadcrumbs that led me down a path of questioning. I posted a few photos of my grandfather on Instagram and Facebook. Then, I invited family and friends to tell me what they remembered. It was actually pretty simple; each photo garnered comments that told me more about my grandfather’s life and legacy. I decided to try to broaden the experience. I tagged some friends and asked them to post photos of their grandparents and ask questions. In turn, they encouraged people in their networks to share. Fast forward to today – my team and I receive thousands of family photos and stories from around the world. It’s really humbling.
SC: I went through some of the stories on the site and was hooked. What is it about photos that draws us in, even when they involve strangers?
RLN: Photos are passports. They transport us to a place called memory. That’s why they hook us – they let us become time travelers. From vintage wedding portraits, to snapshots of first birthdays and family roadtrips, the vintage photos we share are magnetic. They draw folks in because they are so simple, so relatable. I believe the community archive of @SaveFamilyPhotos is a treasure trove of family history and character studies. Our photo feed highlights heritage, spanning continents and cultures. No matter where you come from, there’s a cross-cultural commitment to family. We all have family stories; we all have history. Those stories deserve to be preserved. That’s why gathering around a virtual campfire, whether it’s online or in-person, is so important: when someone else shares their story, it encourages us to tell our own. We can all celebrate each other’s family history, while still respecting our individual legacies.
SC: What is the biggest roadblock to doing something about their family photos for most people? How can they get past it?
RLN: In one word, the biggest roadblock to tackling the task of organizing and preserving family photos is TIME. It seems simultaneously exciting and paralyzing to discover a big box of vintage family photos. In order to take the next steps and preserve them, we have to understand WHY our family pictures are so important. For me, this is the biggest catalyst to taking action: aging family members. Before we know it, some of our loved ones will be gone before we have a chance to ask about their life stories. Family photos contain clues to our ancestors’ lives and legacies. When we take time to ask our loved ones about old family pictures, we ensure that their stories are saved for future generations. Digitizing family photos honors your family history.
There’s no perfect time to get started – just grab those boxes of photos and get going today. Your family will thank you. If you need help, there’s no shame in outsourcing! We’re all super busy, with daily to-do lists that are a mile long. In fact, partnering with a service that takes on the job of scanning hundreds – or thousands – of family photos can feel like a welcomed relief. I recommend setting aside some funds annually to outsource family history projects. That may mean signing up for a family history service like Ancestry.com, or FamilySearch, or sending off a few boxes of photos to be scanned. Take it one step at a time.
Maybe you can separate out a handful of photos that you’d like to scan yourself, and then send the rest to a partner who can help you digitize your archives efficiently. All of us can work together to rescue our priceless family photos from deterioration, theft, natural disaster and loss. Those photos are in danger; as a result, so is family history.
SC: What have you learnt about people and families through your project? Any human insights or patterns that you can talk about?
RLN: National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William Adams says, “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.” This quote sits on my desktop and reminds me why I do what I do. I have a deep sense of purpose about helping families preserve their photos, because it helps us heal. Often, I think talking about family photos can bring families closer together. Images spark memories and memories make us feel bonded to each other. Sometimes, images can even help heal old wounds.
Overall, I’ve been humbled by people’s participation. When I started this passion project, I had no clue it would gain such widespread support. At first, I just reached out to my family and friends to ask for photos to feature on our Instagram feed. Now we’ve grown from just a few followers to over 30k followers and over 20k hashtagged photos (#savefamilyphotos). I’m still pinching myself!
Rachel LaCour Niesen, Steward of Stories & Co-Founder of Save Family Photos, is a Yankee by birth but a Southern storyteller at heart. When a much-loved uncle gifted her with her first SLR camera, Rachel found her calling in photography. In pursuit of her passion, she headed to the University of Missouri, where she studied Photojournalism and Art History. When she’s not curating vintage family photos, she enjoys adventures with her husband and partner in entrepreneurship, Andrew Niesen.