Photo albums as story books

Storytelling has been around at least as long as fire. Cavemen surely sat around the campfire watching mastodon meat sizzle over the flames and telling stories about the one that got away.

It turns out, storytelling plays an important role in our memories, so says Chicago Tribune’s Heidi Stevens in a recent column.

“Narratives are key to shaping our sense of the world,” author Nicholas Day told Stevens. “When we tell our children stories about things that have happened and things that are important to us, they’re more likely to stick if they’re in that narrative form.”

“Narrative” is just a fancy word for “story,” a spoken or written account of connected events.

A narrative, though, has even more impact when accompanied by visuals. Think of the picture books you read (or were read to you) as a child. You probably remember the stories of the Wild Things or Sam-I-Am, but those stories probably stick in your brain because of the illustrations.

While I love photo albums, I love them even more with photo captions. A photo may be worth a thousand words, but a photo is even better when accompanied by even a few words.

One can improve on a basic photo caption (“Dad in 1969”) by adding a little story (“This is my favorite picture of your father. It was taken in 1969, and I love his crew cut and how he looks like he might conquer the world”).

One way to think about organizing a photo album is to think about the story you’re telling. Are you telling a daughter how strong and capable she is? Are you reveling in the opulence of your cruise vacation? Are you documenting a lifetime of car ownership or gardening? Knowing the story you want to tell helps inform:

  • Which photos to include (remember, a story is “connected events”),
  • The order of those images and
  • The titles and captions you might use.

The knowledge that your narrative helps cement memories also inspires the conclusion to your story. The story of the daughter should end with an image and statement about her strength. A story of an opulent vacation should culminate in most over-the-top moment of decadence in which viewers can revel even when the weather is cold and the meal is basic. A story of a lifelong hobby might conclude with a list of the joys of participation (cars may represent freedom, gardening might give meaning to the changing seasons).

Here’s to telling your stories.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

~Philip Pullman


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