Preserving memories using old photo albums…as conversation starters

Discovering old family photo albums and scrapbooks is nearly always a treat for a genealogist. Especially if they’re (correctly) labeled.

Lately, I’ve used old photo albums as conversation starters with the family members who know more than I do about what’s in the photos. In the past year, I’ve sat down with a couple of different family members and looked through albums with them, while recording our conversations using a voice recorder (in my case, the Voice Memos app on my iPhone). I’ve also taken photos of the albums before or after we talk.

This has had at least a few benefits:

  • I’ve gotten information about the photos that I might not have had before. Even if a photo was labeled, hearing something like, “that’s Aunt Frances, Granny’s sister” tells me more than just reading a label of “Frances.”
  • Seeing a photo can remind someone of stories about the person and/or scene in the photo – more than just names and places. And sometimes the person talking might remember people or details that they wouldn’t have thought to tell me about otherwise.
  • Sometimes, the stories and memories that come up can be only partly – or not at all – related to the subject matter of the albums. And some of these can be real gems. I’ve heard about a neighbor who played Santa for all the neighborhood kids…a grandmother’s old beau (whom she considered marrying after she was widowed)…a great grandfather’s friend who was a tailor for the King of England.

Using a voice recorder has made it a lot easier for myself than trying to take notes, interrupting the flow of conversation to make sure I get all of what was just said. And yes, going back and transcribing the conversations later is a little bit of a pain, but it is a nice refresher of the conversations after the fact. When I was recently transcribing one of these conversations that took place a few months back, I had forgotten that not only had I heard the name of a grandmother’s brother shown in a photo, but I also got his wife’s name, where he lived, and his job (possibly helpful since the grandmother’s and brother’s names were both fairly common).

I have learned some things that I could do better when I try this again, such as audibly mentioning album landmarks (e.g., this is the album with the green cover, or these look like photos from a wedding) so that I have a better idea of what we’re looking at throughout the conversation; and trying to ask more questions that encourage my interviewees to remember and share stories.

Even if the interviews aren’t perfect and the recollections themselves aren’t flawless, recording conversations about photo albums has given me more detail, context, and fun anecdotes than I had before. 

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