Using photographs 1.1
This is one of America’s iconic images. What is it doing on a site about ethical wills and legacy communications? Well — what do you think of when you see it? What do you imagine was happening in the woman’s life? What does it remind you of? What’s your reaction to it?
Shot by Dorothea Lange in February or March of 1936, it is most commonly known as “Migrant Mother.” For decades, no one knew who the woman was or the story it encapsulated. If you read Wikipedia and other online resources, you will learn the serendipitous way in which the negative escaped oblivion in a dumpster, and about Florence Owens Thompson and her family.
Why is this photo here? Because not all of us are writers, or particularly verbal people. We all can’t tell good stories. However, we do know the power of images, and most of us are aware of how much they can trigger thoughts, feelings, and even memories we have forgotten we had. And most especially because using photographs is a superb way of creating your legacy communication. Images are deeply useful when we create an ethical will, any sort of legacy letter, and most especially an imaginative legacy communication. Photographs can prime the pump.
Start with this: Think of your life up to now as having several eras. One simple way to consider this for an average middle-age person could be: (1) childhood, (2) young adulthood, (3) military service, Peace Corps, other service, (4) marriage/partnership (5) work life (6) children.
Go to your archive of personal images, probably a mix of prints and slides along with digital records. Select from the archives — and here’s the hard, thinking part — no more than two or three images from each era or phase of your life, however you have thought of it. Get out a piece of paper or sit in front of your keyboard, and start one page for each era or life category you have decided upon.
Take one era at a time, and look, really look, at the images you picked. There are things you always notice when you look at any give picture in your collection, but I want you to think about everything in that photo. If you need to, start in the upper left-hand corner and write down everything you see. Make a quick note of every detail. Later you can edit, now just include everything that comes to mind.
Let’s use the image below as an example: Tell us everything you know about the people in that photograph – just jot down some notes. If this were a photograph from your family’s archives, you might have notes that read like this:
It is of my grandparents and mother when they came to this country from Germany.
Man on left is Walter Gottfried, my mother’s father. He was a shoemaker in Stuttgart, Germany. He was known for his sense of humor and that he would make, out of scraps, little dolls for the family’s grandchildren. The little girl is my mother. The only thing she remembers bringing from Germany is her favorite doll, which she tells me she was carrying the day this photo was taken. She remembers the day clearly she says because the photographer complimented her on the doll and gave her a piece of candy. He winked at her and gave her a second piece “for your dollie.” The woman on the right is Ingrid, my mother’s mother. She was a quiet woman, my mother says, who never raised her voice in anger but would quietly disagree with her husband – rarely – with a “tuttut, Walter.” She was a great seamstress.
As you are writing this, you might find yourself also remembering more:
Walter and Ingrid went on to have two more children, Richard and Carl, my two uncles. They both served in WWII. Carl died when he was shot down over Germany. He was assigned to a bomber squadron and my mother says he was torn up about it after he enlisted. “Who knows if I’m bombing my cousins?” she said he would ask when he had a little too much to drink. Grandpa Walter would be very sad, but very angry at Hitler and what Hitler was doing to “the old country.”
Richard and Carl were close growing up [do you have pictures of the whole family together? Maybe not. Why not? Is that significant?]. Richard became an accountant after the war. He was an infantryman. He told me once accounting was dull but “at least I will never have to see another gun.” He married a nurse he met during the war, named Alice. She was from England. They have three children. Rose, Carl, and Edward. Edward, named after Alice’s brother, also a pilot, died in WWII.
Walter Gottfried died in 1960. My mother said he died in his sleep, and had been healthy all his life. He was only 60 years old. I think he must have had a heart attack. Ingrid, his wife, lived until she was 80. She died in her sleep, too. She lived with us the last three or four years of her life when she became kind of frail. I remember her giving me sweets when I came home from school. She didn’t talk much but I remember her smiling and she smelled like lilies of the valley.
When Walter and Ingrid came here, Walter got a job at a shoe repair shop in NYC, and Ingrid took in sewing and repair work. My mother says she was well-known for the quality of her stitching, and everyone wanted their favorite dresses and suits mended by Ingrid.
Eventually Walter and Ingrid left NYC and moved to Virginia. One of Walter’s brothers, Rolph, had come over from Germany and was working at a shipyard on the James River. He convinced my grandparents it was cheaper living in Virginia and the winters were not as bad.
My mother met and married a Navy man. His family was from Ireland and his name is Brendan O’Rourke. I was born in Virginia but we moved to Texas, to Corpus Christie after I got out of high school and while my own sisters, Alice and Bridget were still in high school. They hated leaving their friends. Dad got a transfer so we had to go.
One photograph, one chain of associations. One memory links to another, and one photograph that would have provided just “who the people are” has now provided a fuller picture of a family. So, instead of simply showing this image to a grandchild and saying “oh, that’s my grandparents and my mother when they came to America, on Ellis Island,” you now have a rich addition to a family history. Later, we’ll talk about how to review your notes, edit them, and make sense of the themes you’ll notice. And, yes, that is the Statue of Liberty they are looking at.
A reminder for nurses, caregivers, and others who care for or love older or ill people: photographs can often be prompts for pleasurable strolls in old memory for the elderly, and even those suffering some dementia are able to enjoy and benefit from the exercise. If the elderly person is your family member, you might ask if you can record the stories he or she tells you in response to the photos, and keep it as part of the family history. Combine these stories into genealogical research, memoirs, straightforward family histories, memorial services, or family archives that are, on occasion, bequeathed to local historical societies.
Stories are never wasted. Stories tell us who we are, where we come from, and what matters to us. Use photographs to prime the pump.
Coming up soon: more on photos
All images from Library of Congress archives:
Title: Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California Other Title: Migrant mother. Creator(s): Lange, Dorothea, photographer Date Created/Published: 1936 Feb. or Mar. Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23845 (digital file from print, post-conservation).
Title: A case of “Economic Need.” Creator(s): Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer Date Created/Published: 1915 October 30. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-50904.
Title: [Immigrant family looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island] Date Created/Published: [ca. 1930] Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-50904 (b&w film copy neg.)