Photos Promote Family History

As often happens with many of us this time of year, I was sifting through some old photos this week; I was looking for one specific photo but I got caught up in all the memories that each photo held and to this day I forgot what photo I was actually looking for.

One photo in particular caught my attention, that of our youngest son the day we brought him home from the hospital on Dec. 27, a day after he’d been born one hour and eleven minutes after Christmas in 1994.  That’s 20 years ago.

The picture showed him all swaddled in blankets, his little hospital beany on his head, under the Christmas tree amongst all the other presents yet to be unbundled by the two older kids and us. Then, he was a little, barely 8-pound bundle of Christmas joy who had no interest in the gifts unless it involved food or fresh diapers.

Fast-forward 20 years, he is now a strapping 6-foot human version of a St. Bernard puppy.  He lifts weights, runs, he boxes and he’s awaiting word that he has been accepted into the Coast Guard. As a kid born with bilateral club feet, he’s overcome a lot to get to where he is and we are very proud of him.

It would be hard to remember him as that squirming little bundle under the tree, if not for that one photo that I snapped, then with a camera that had film in it, so I couldn’t be sure if it was a good shot until it got developed.

As I dug through other photos it brought me back even farther into family history, into events in the other two kids’ lives and even some back to when my grandparents and their families emigrated from Italy to be greeted by the Statue of Liberty like so many others in the early 1900s.

Why do I tell this story? 

To illustrate that photos, printed photos that you can touch and pass around, are important to developing a sense of family. Digital photos are fine, but when everyone is sitting around the coffee table or the kitchen table at family gatherings, you can’t pass around digital photo albums. 

You can’t touch and feel the fabric of an old photo on the screen of a laptop or smart phone.   You can’t pull it close to see the yellowing around the edges.

Viewing old photos during family gatherings generates memories – sometimes memories that had been lost or forgotten until the photo is viewed by the right person in the family; the person who knows the story behind the photo.  Mostly they are hopefully good memories, sometimes not; sometimes a photo can generate discussions that heal old wounds, or open them. 

There was a time when the phrase “a photo doesn’t lie” was really true.  Whatever got caught in the split second of time was what emerged on the negative and got printed.  Oh, there were a handful of highly skilled experts with the right equipment who could create double exposures and such, but the general public normally got what they shot.

I suspect that there are those in younger generations who would argue that digital photo presentations can be just as moving and historically important to families.  To a certain extent, I agree; putting together photo albums to music can add drama and punch to photo albums.  You can even add notations on slides to explain the history of each photo - and video if you have it – or rather, if you know how to do it, or have nieces, nephews, kids or savvy elders who know how.

The problem with this is technology.  You need a projector, a laptop or one of the current mobile devices, a screening area, a blank wall and electricity.

Printed photos are low tech.  All you need is a kitchen, living room or dining room table where you can spread the photo albums, loose photos or boxes of photos out and have at it.

Some of the best times we’ve had in my family have been looking through all the old photos. 

Our kids still laugh at the one of me with mutton-chop sideburns and a moustache – in contrast to the state of my hairs today.

I still enjoy telling them – all of them and my wife born in the South - about life on the farm in Wisconsin.  They have to believe my 8-foot tall snow drift stories and below freezing temperatures and – well, there are still some stories I don’t have photos to substantiate but at least I can back up some of my stories, which I admit do get better each time I tell them.

They look at pictures of me and my wife-their-mother in early years of marriage – she still as beautiful as ever – and me as a young, lean, mean Marine – in contrast to now when I am still a Marine but not so young, lean or mean.

Life has a way of moving on, but photos represent a moment in time, a split second when somebody got caught in the act of life and it is preserved as long as there are those who pass it on.

It saddens me when I go into antique stores, restaurants and other public places and see amazing photos of someone’s relatives displayed on a table, or under dusty curios, or on a wall, unnamed but representing a very important moment in somebody’s lives.

I am a photojournalist by training and experience, so photos have played an important part in my life.   At family gatherings I am frequently asked to take the pictures and I like that, because I appreciate their importance and I do my best to capture the essence of whatever event is going on.

We are planning our first family reunion ever next year.  My brother, sister and I (the youngest) are the primary planning committee.  There is much work to be done, but one of the most important elements will be photos – whether in print form and/or in digital presentations. 

This will be the first time we have attempted to draw in far-flung family members spread across the globe.  We don’t know what kind of response we’ll get – smaller would be better for this first one so we can iron out logistics.  But, who knows, it could turn into a regular event.

The photos that will be taken during this event will begin a new chapter in the family history, and decades from now, some Christmas Eve or Day after Christmas, someone will be sitting around the kitchen table, scattering photos and pick one up and ask, “Do you remember when these were taken?” or “Who are these people?”

And in the discussion that will follow, history shall be passed from one generation to another.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email