Make photographing your family a top priority

Thanks For The Memories

Dedicated to my father, Seymour Resnick, of blessed memory, January 15, 1920-January 14, 2007.

It was early January. My wife, daughters and I came to visit my father in the nursing home, and celebrated his birthday a week early. Five months earlier, Dad had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and we knew the inevitable was approaching. Despite his condition, our visit perked Dad up: by the end was smiling and even posed for a couple of photographs. They were the last pictures I'd take of him. He passed away a week later, just a few hours before his 87th birthday.

I'd brought photos of my children and put them up on the wall opposite his bed, so he could see them. Whenever a nurse or aide walked into Dad's room, even when he could no longer speak, he'd point to the photos and give a "thumbs-up" sign. It was clear that looking at these photographs helped comfort my father.

Even as Dad's health rapidly declined and he no longer spoke, he managed to point to this photo which I shot of my daughters and gave a "thumbs-up" whenever a nurse or aide came into the room. Even at the end, photography was a source of comfort for him...and for me.

In the hours after Dad passed away, in the midst of making funeral arrangements and phone calls to inform friends and family, I found a poster-sized photo collage my Mom made seven years ealier to celebrate Dad's 80th birthday--his life in pictures, from birth through his 70s. Every so often, I'd stop and look at the images of my father in his vigor, and it gave me comfort. During the week of mourning (Shivah) that my family observed, visitors also stopped and looked at the photos, many often recalling something about him based on a picture they saw.

This is the power of photography at a time of family crisis.

The power of a photograph

In the days and weeks immediately following my father's death, I found myself looking at photographs of him as a source of comfort, and to jog memories. I was busy scanning and sharing images via email with other family members. Images became an integral part of our mourning process.

I've been thinking about the role photography played in in my family's coming to terms with my father’s death. Despite having spent over 20 years writing about photography, this experience showed me how powerful family photographs are. I believe we can all learn from this experience.

The importance of "memory keepers"

We like to remember our relatives in their prime. Here, Dad is in his 30s and I'm about 4 or 5. Photo by Lillian Resnick

Usually a family has at least one person who takes on the responsibility for recording family occasions and organizing the visual family history in albums, frames, and other creative presentations. The photo industry calls such individuals the "memory keeper." According to surveys conducted by the Photo Marketing Association, the vast majority of memory keepers are female.

While Dad tends to be the DSLR user and may spend more time photographing creative subjects, Mom is more likely to photograph soccer games, school plays, holiday parties, and Junior in front of the Washington Monument during summer vacation. (Of course, this is not always the case; sometimes the roles are reversed.)

Vacation shots, such as this with my parents visiting the Alhambra in Spain, can help jog fond memories. By the way, that camera hanging from my 14-year-old neck is an ancient and inconvenient (even in 1971) Bolsey B2, my first 35mm camera! Photographer unknown.

If you're reading this, you're either the memory keeper or the family's creative photographer. If you're the "creative," make time to photograph the family. Invest in a small camera so on those (hopefully rare) occasions when you can't be bothered with bringing your big rig, you can simply stuff a compact camera in your pocket and go. I recommend a waterproof compact so if you go to the beach or a pool, you can keep shooting without worrying.

Even if you're not the world's most talented photographer, you can still take pictures you'll be happy with years from now when all you have are, as Jim Croce sang, photographs and memories. The guideline is to make sure the images you take are well-exposed and aren't blurry. Remember that if you shoot blurry, poorly-exposed pictures, that's all you'll have.

Use your skills

I owned studio lights and backdrops for my traveling portrait business; one day when my parents came to visit, I gave them the full treatment. After Dad died, people pointed out this shot in particular among dozens of snapshots.

If you're more advanced, turn your lens towards your family members and use your talents and skill to capture them in a way that goes beyond the casual snapshot. If you've never tried portrait lighting, experiment on them. You'll end up with a collection of images that will wow all who see them. (You can learn how to get started in studio lighting here.)

Make prints: don't rely on your hard drive or mass storage device to hold your photographs for decades; make sure to print your family shots. Considering the fact that prints are cheaper than ever to make, you really have no excuses. Online processing services such as Adorama PIX offer 4x6 prints for 19 cents or less.

All-in-ones help you share images

During my recent experience, I came to really appreciate the investment I made in an all-in-one. An all-in-one scans, copies and prints without the need for a computer. I bought a all-in-one and it came in handy. During the week of mourning, cousins came from afar and we looked through photo albums and boxes of pictures, and requests for copies were made.

We were going through a shoebox with my cousins from Florida and found this shot of a rare gathering of the entire family. They asked for copies--all-in-one scanner/printer came to the rescue again. Photographer unknown.

Instead of the old way, which would have involved copying the photos with my camera and getting them processed, I simply brought the photos home, put them in the all-in-one, and made photo-quality copies. It took a couple of minutes per 8x10 print. In some cases there were creases and other imperfections, but the unit I bought fixed most of these automatically. I also used the all-in-one's scanning feature to email family photos to relatives hither and yon.

The downside of an all-in-one is the cost of the consumables. Ink is quite expensive, and was used up fast. But the convenience couldn't be denied, and I was able to make copies on demand and hand them to my cousins.

Those mushy Kodak ads were right

And that last photo of Dad that I shot a week before he passed away? A few weeks after he passed away, I slipped the memory card into the all-in-one, and made a print. It's framed and hanging in my office. My daughters sometimes come into my office and gaze at the picture, and we talk about their grandfather. I believe it’s helping them deal with their grief.

Kodak used to have those wonderfully mushy ads..."The Times Of Your Life"..."Kodak Moments..." etc. that quickly became clichés. But they were encouraging people to collect and keep memories because someone up in Rochester realized that images of your loved ones have an emotional power that only increases when those loved ones are gone. The "Keep me, protect me, share me, and I will live forever" TV ad is a recent, wonderfully resonant summary of why photographs are so powerful. Watch it:



So listen to those mushy Kodak ads: Take lots of pictures of your family. Improve your skills, and photograph them the best way you know how. Store your photos archivally to protect them so people can look at them years from now. Make copies and prints, and share them generously.

And keep shooting...because memory is cheap; memories are priceless.


(By the's the full extended 6-minute version of the Kodak ad. Fun to watch!)




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