Rachel LaCour Niesen’s passion for vintage photos started when she walked down her grandmother’s wood-paneled hallway to look at a bedroom wall that held a carefully edited family history.
There she saw a photo of her father standing proud in his cap and gown on graduation day, an aunt sitting poolside during a swim meet and a happy couple cutting their wedding cake. The imprint those pictures left on LaCour Niesen lies at the heart of her @savefamilyphotos project on Instagram, where she curates a collective history. She invites people from around the world to send her a digital copy of a cherished family photo and brief story that, in many cases, gives the photo its emotional muscle.
“The treasure is not just the photo but the story that comes with it,” LaCour Niesen told Cult of Mac. “I believe stories are the currency of our past, present and future. Without them, we are bankrupt. Our family photos trigger those stories. They are like glue that holds my story — and our stories — together over time.”
Throwback Thursday, Facebook and Instagram have made personal blasts from the past a weekly — if not an hourly — ritual. The web is awash in fuzzy Polaroids, vintage Kodachromes and black-and-white snaps, uploaded by individuals with hard drives full of memories and shared by everyone.
For her contribution to this burgeoning wave of nostalgia, LaCour Niesen rises early each day to go through submissions, posting a new find by 9 a.m. She gets anywhere from four to 20 submissions a day through her Tumblr site (savefamilyphotos.com) or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Her husband knows she’s found a winner when he sees her tearing up.
“Every time I think I’ve seen a photo and story that moved me the most, another one comes along and just floors me with a simple beauty,” LaCour Niesen said. She and her husband are photographers who gave up a wedding and studio business to become software entrepreneurs.
Preserving our photographic past
The @savefamilyphotos project started six months ago as LaCour Niesen was grieving the loss of her grandfather. She posted a photo and story of him and invited family and friends to do the same. In turn, they encouraged people in their circles to share. Photos now come in from all over the United States and from as far away as India and Australia. On May 1, she surpassed 4,000 followers, with more than 2,000 photos shared on Instagram with the #savefamilyphotos hashtag.
LaCour Niesen calls @savefamilyphotos the building of a movement, and she tends to it with a kind of urgency. With technology making photography easier and more immediate, she fears we are being “buried under our own images,” with old analog photos and the stories behind them in danger of disappearing.
Hard drives crash, mobile phones get lost and JPEGs deteriorate with every resave. To combat this, LaCour Niesen is developing a website to serve as a permanent home for the @savefamilyphotos pictures (and also offer tips on how best to preserve a family’s visual history) .
LaCour Niesen suggests people protect the current chapters of their stories by taking one hour a month to comb through digital photos and have them printed. She likes to use apps Artifact Uprising and Instantly Framed for printing photos.
“If your house is burning down, you’re going to grab that album or that box of photos,” she said. “There is a tangible magic to them. It’s very different than images floating in the cloud somewhere.”