Karen Fisher-Alaniz, whom I interviewed here about her memoir, Breaking the Code, had a shock recently. The diner where she and her father sat and talked each Wednesday is going to close. This was where Karen worked on getting her father to talk about his WWII past, where she worked on bonding with her dad. Memories. Memories that made it into her book. Fortunately, she has photos.
I figured out that some of the most important photos are not the family portraits where everyone pastes on a smile, not the school pictures, maybe not even the staged wedding photos (especially not these days where divorce is common). The most meaningful photos are the ones that show personalities and what is important to our lives, the pictures of our everyday lives.
What is it your family members like to do, what are they known for? I have photos of my dad working a puzzle, my mom trimming a bonsai, my mom-in-law cooking—and my dad-in-law happily holding a plate full of her comfort food. I love the pictures of one daughter asleep cuddling a cat and another fluffing the floppy ears of her dog. I love the photo of my dad-in-law working on his tractor. And there’s the pic of my mom in her beloved 15-year-old car with only 30,000 miles on it, taken just before it was sold to retire in the country. My daughter with her beloved yellow Mustang before it was totaled on Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. Don’t forget to take pictures of the front of houses you’ve lived in.
I met fine arts photographer David Coblitz at my booksigning this past Saturday and had a good time looking through his art loaded on his iPad. He doesn’t advertise he takes portraits for bios, but he should because somehow he captures personality. It’s hard, he says, because people feel awkward at photo shoots and he has to get them comfortable and into character. Most of us bawk and feel self-conscious when anyone points a camera our way.
Most portraits won’t capture personality, and we’re better off catching our beloveds right in the middle of doing what they love. Let the picture tell a story.