One family photo from my childhood that I treasure the most is a picture of my sister, my parents and me. We are all dressed up in our Easter finest and the photo stands out amongst the others because it’s a candid captured moment in time. No doubt the intent was to shoot a typical holiday family portrait of everyone smiling at the camera. But something must have happened to cause that frown on my sister’s face and whoever shot that picture captured that moment. Sadly, I don’t remember what caused that look on my sister’s face and I’ll probably never know because I am the only one alive from that time period when my family was a family of four.
During the first six years of my life, my immediate family consisted of one sibling, my sister, and my parents. The older of my two brothers was born when I was six years old and the younger of my brothers was born when I was about ten. I have fleeting memories that surface from time to time, either spurred by an old picture or by one of my siblings telling a story. Somehow the family stories have survived through the years and passed along to the next generation in the family.
My sister died this past summer. She was far too young to die and caught us by surprise. Immediately after her death, I think we all were in a bit of shock. Personally, I don’t think I fully realized at the time just how profound her death was. The loss continues to surface in many ways.
She was the first-born child of the four of us siblings. She was also a great first-born child – always looking out for all of us. She also hosted our family gathering on Thanksgiving for as long I as can remember. I thought that tradition was over after she died, but thanks to her sons and daughters-in-law who took charge that day and cooked a memorable meal in the family home, they turned a difficult day into a happy memory.
It’s been kind of a tradition at family gatherings to linger at the dinner table long after the food has been consumed. We tell the family stories that we remember and have lots of laughs. Even though some of us have heard them hundreds of times there’s always those who are new to the family who haven’t. This Thanksgiving, I was talking with my younger brother about a childhood memory and I realized that some of my memories were only shared with my sister. Maybe that’s one of the harder things to deal with when we lose people who have always been present in our lives. You don’t just lose them but the shared memories as well.
I had just graduated from a professional photographic trade school in California and had moved back to the East Coast to make my mark shooting for magazines like Life, Look, National Geographic etc. I took my portfolio around, that at that time consisted of various still life photographs that were shot in a studio.
Eventually, I went to see the legendary New York photographer, Jay Maisel who was known for his bluntness. I brought with me some travel snapshots that I had taken while on a year-long backpacking odyssey before I attended school. Jay looked through my portfolio of well executed but boring photographs of toasters and martini glasses and then threw them back at me and said; “This is crap. This isn’t what you want to do, is it?” I said “no” but then I told him what other photographers had been telling me, that this was where the business was going. I showed him my travel snapshots and said, “This is what I want to do.” He looked me straight in the face and asked, “How old are you?” to which I replied, “I’m 25 years old”.
I’ll never forget what he said to me. “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises?” To this day, I remind myself of his words whenever I feel like I’ve strayed off the path I was meant to be on. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?
It was getting dark and I was getting hungry but I was afraid to leave my hiding place and go home. I was about six years old, back at a time when a parent could leave their child in the backyard to play without worrying about them. At the time, we lived in an apartment building that had a small yard that backed up to an alley. The day before a neighbor lady walked by as I was playing and asked me how my mom was. For some strange reason, I started making up a story, telling the neighbor that my mom had just had a baby and was doing fine. She had not seen my mom for some time so my story was plausible although she looked surprised.
The next day while playing outside I saw the same woman, walk up to our door carrying a cake. I knew it had something to do with my mom and the fictional new baby. I quickly jumped into some shrubs and waited for her to leave. After she was long gone I was still too afraid to come out from hiding and face my punishment. I finally came out but I don’t recall the punishment that I received. I do remember seeing a small grin on my mother’s face that she was clearly trying to suppress. This is my first memory of being a storyteller. Now, as a photographer and a filmmaker, I’m a storyteller by profession.
I have fond memories of my grandmother telling stories as we lingered at the dinner table long after the family meal had been consumed. If she didn’t have a story to tell, my mom would. Maybe that’s why I became a storyteller, first as a still photographer, now as a filmmaker.
More than a decade ago, my mother died suddenly. It was not expected. We had no warning and then one day she was gone from our lives forever. I would give anything to hear her voice again. To hear her tell a story that she had told a hundred times before.
Other than some scattered photos, random letters and a few mementos of her, all I have left are my memories but they have begun to fade.
As a photographer and filmmaker, I have decided to use my craft and skills to create custom biographical family films to preserve one’s legacy for future generations. Based on the popularity of DNA tests, it seems as if I’m not alone in pursuing my interest in my heritage. But I’m more interested in finding out more about the lives of my ancestors and the people they were than I am in finding out where I came from. I want to know who they really were, what they did for a living, what motivated them, discouraged them and what their dreams were.
As I continue to go down this path of video storytelling, I realize that this it is exactly what I am meant to do. And that is to tell the story of those who came before us. But I don’t want to wait to capture the stories of our loved ones after they are gone. Instead, I want to capture the family stories from the people who are in our lives while they are still here to tell them. I have come to realize that preserving a family’s legacy in this way, is priceless.
My hope for this blog is to pass along to others, some tips, and knowledge as to how we can capture our family’s stories and preserve this legacy for future generations.