Chris and Matt Alton, playing together in the back garden (Barnstaple, Devon : March 1999)
There’s a parlour game that people sometimes play. Imagine that your house is on fire – what would you risk your life to try and save? Unless you want to upset your family, you’d better rescue them first. But then what?
I find the game morbid, but people’s answers can be revealing. Favourite novels and personal diaries often come up, along with the family photo album. And what do they have in common? In their own way, they all tell a story.
As a photographer, it’s the photo album that interests me. In our family my sister keeps the albums, which go back to the 1920s. We often get them out, to remind each other who’s who – and how they lived. It’s a powerful way of keeping family stories alive, but is that changing in this digital age? In future, will we gather round our smartphones and electronic tablets, to delve into the family archives? Somehow I doubt it.
For me, much of the power of family photos – especially those in an album – comes from them being tangible. They have texture and thickness. Even tea and coffee stains hint at stories the pictures could tell, if only we knew how to ask. The photos help us to remember.
My granddaughter, Neesa, being carried in a sling (Lusaka, October 2007)
In this digital age, photos have lost much of their power because we’re bombarded with them – on the internet, on our phones and on television. Often there’s been no editing, especially on social media. So we get tired of sorting the good stuff out from the bad.
Let me make a plea on behalf of future generations. Before you get overwhelmed, go through your family photos. Choose the ones that matter to you, have them printed (or print them yourself) and note down the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Then put them in an album, to share and enjoy.
If you’d like to tell us about your own experience – or you disagree with me – you’re welcome to leave a comment.