Old Photographs and the Memoir

I remember on New Year’s Eve, when I was a boy, my father’s side of the family would gather for a supper of oyster soup and games of cards—usually either Pitch or Rook. This was in a day when we didn’t have cell phones that took pictures, when we didn’t live in a society that immediately documents every moment. On occasion someone would have an instamatic camera or a Polaroid, so sometimes there would be a few moments frozen in time—people sitting around a kitchen table, cards fanned before them, my cousin reaching out to gather in a trick, or my mother in the midst of conversation, her head tossed back as she laughed.

These days we take countless photos and post them to social media or just leave them on our cameras or erase them, and it seems to me that we’ve made our experiences fleeting and disposable. In the days when photos were fewer, they meant more, particularly for the memoirist who years later studies these pictures for the stories they tell or the ones that they don’t.

When beginning to write a memoir, it’s often a good idea to gather photographs from the time in question. Looking at these pictures not only immerses you in the time period, it also provides an emotional connection between you and the people about whom you’re writing.

Here are some things that can happen while looking at old photos:

1.  A photograph can suggest a scene. You look at the clothes people wore, the way someone held his or her hands, the things on the wall of the kitchen, the radio on top of the refrigerator, the old percolator in the corner, etc., and suddenly from these details people begin to move and talk.

2.  A photograph can suggest other scenes. You look at the picture and remember the night of the New Year’s Eve party, and that memory triggers other memories, and the next thing you know you’re constructing a narrative.

3.  A photograph can make you curious. Why did your father’s eyeglasses never fit properly? Why didn’t he take the time to get them adjusted? What does that one detail say about the story of your family?

4.  A photograph can suggest the secrets your family tried to keep. What does that pained smile on your mother’s face try to cover over? What do you know about her that’s there just below the surface of the photograph?

5. A photograph can carry you forward into the present. What would that New Year’s Eve party be like now if everyone would have been allowed to live and you could interact with them as the adult you are? How does that moment from years ago connect to the person you are now?

For the memoirist, old photos can be keys to making your writing a vivid inquiry into past, present, and future. Meaning resides in those photos. If we start with them, we’ll be well on our way to finding what they contain. Photos can document experience while also sparking our imagination. Take the time to look, to remember, to question, to think, and to imagine.

Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you all a prosperous 2015 full of love, and health, and good words.


  1. Carolyn Walker on January 4, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    Thank you for this, and every, post. I’ve been going thru old photos and typing my parents’ love letters from WWII into my laptop in perpetration for a memoir and it occurred to me that the next generation will not find musty old letters to hold and use due to email, etc. There’s something sad about that.

    • Lee Martin on January 5, 2015 at 7:29 pm

      You’re so right about that, Carolyn! I think it’s tremendously sad that we’ve become a digital society, one in which things like letters are disposable. How lucky you are to have those letters from your parents.

  2. Jayne Martin on January 5, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    I’m fortunate to have many old family photos going back to the early 20th Century. Thank you for reminding me of the tales they have to tell.

  3. Lee Martin on January 5, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    Jayne, you are indeed fortunate to have those old photos. They’re such a gift.

  4. Juli Roberts on January 6, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    My daughter asked for and received a Polaroid camera for her 17th birthday last April. We had a fabulous discussion about memories and photos, and she realizes that she must make careful decisions when it comes to shooting a photo, just as we did when we had to buy film and pay for developing the film. The ease and convenience of taking photos on our smartphones comes with a cost, however. Many of us get so focused on capturing moments on our digital devices that we miss out on experiencing the moment.

    • Lee Martin on January 7, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      Hi, Juli. You make an excellent point about how selectivity seems to have gone out the window in this age of documenting via photo nearly every moment of our lives. As you say, we miss the moments themselves! Thanks so much for your good comment!

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