Many millions of smartphone photographs are sure to be snapped as people gather with family and friends this week for Thanksgiving and again for holidays throughout the remainder of the year. And while many of those images are sure to capture cherished moments among loved ones, it is the photographs already on walls or in albums or stuffed in attic boxes that Rachel LaCour Niesen hopes we will take the time to connect over.
Niesen is the founder of Save Family Photos, the popular Instagram account dedicated to sharing the stories behind vintage family photographs from users around the world. She’s just launched a new app called weGather, with the hope of bringing that ability to connect over old images to every person with a smartphone. By interacting digitally over classic photos, families can preserve what Niesen regards as crucial pieces of history.
The journey into appreciating the past and how it was captured and shared started for Niesen when her grandfather died in 2013. With a background in photojournalism and storytelling, Niesen wanted to celebrate her grandfather’s legacy and started by digitizing old photos of him — from his military service to meeting Niesen’s grandmother and starting a family.
“Then, I simply posted a few photos and memories about him on Instagram and invited family and friends to do the same for their loved ones,” Niesen said about the start of Save Family Photos. “In turn, they encouraged people in their networks to share. Now I get thousands of photo submissions from around the world. It’s humbling; I feel like I’m a steward of stories.”
Niesen soon began to see a much bigger picture, if you will, when it came to family photographs and what she might do to help people connect over them.
“Shortly after my grandfather died, my grandmother’s health began to decline and I spent some time with her in our ancestral home in Mississippi. She had a wood-paneled wall filled with family photos. On that wall, I saw faces full of hopes and dreams,” Niesen said. “Thatʼs when I realized, my story started before me. Yet I didn’t know many of the stories behind those old photos. From that moment, I was determined to help families collaborate to capture the stories behind their old analog photos.”
Niesen, who splits her time with her family between New York and Atlanta, calls her husband Andrew a “software product visionary” and her partner in entrepreneurship. She said they have built successful software companies before, “but this felt different. It felt more personal.” They began prototyping and dreaming and eventually sought out a team of developers who could help create weGather.
For folks who are already connecting on Instagram or Facebook or simply texting or emailing images to one another, weGather sets itself apart by being a dedicated space for hi-res images and the metadata — or comments — associated with each photograph.
“While social media networks, and even apps like Google’s Photo Scan, can be fun tools for sharing memories, they aren’t designed from the ground up to preserve metadata,” Niesen said. “weGather was designed — from the first line of code — to prioritize metadata collection and preservation.”
Niesen’s belief is that family history is just as valuable as global history, and that photographs are a great way to trigger stories that bring family history to life.
“Family photos are priceless, but without the stories behind them, their value is diminished,” Niesen said. “Many of these stories live inside individualsʼ memories — when they die, the stories die with them. That’s why weGather is designed to tap into the power of nostalgia — families can collaborate to add memories to their old photos. We want to ensure that family photos never become anonymous artifacts in thrift stores.”
If you saw cousin Jimmy Snapchatting with cousin Sally across the kids’ table at your Thanksgiving celebration, you may have thought they already belong to a generation that has little regard for the vintage photograph of granny hanging over the fireplace. But Niesen thinks the age of social media and instant gratification is exactly what pulls us back toward the analog. (Which is why Uncle Larry played a vinyl copy of “Born to Run” rather than asking Alexa to play it through his Echo.)
“I actually think there’s a real desire to return to our roots and gather around something tangible like a family album. There is something special about holding photographs in your hands, and passing them around the table with family members,” Niesen said. “As we create content at sonic speeds (hello, Snapchat!), we’re accumulating more data than ever before. In fact, we’re drowning in our own content — photos that may never even escape our phones. I think photos — especially family photos — deserve to be enjoyed in tangible form. Analog photos trigger such powerful emotional responses in all of us.”
For me, photographs are essential to the connection I have with my family and the countless memories we have shared. I grew up in a photo friendly family where someone always had a camera out, and many of my family members worked at one time or another for Kodak. My mom still has dozens of neatly arranged photo albums, and when I do get home, I can’t resist thumbing through them and reminiscing.
Last year, I shared an image with Niesen and Save Family Photos of me and my mom in New York City in the early 1970s. Niesen ended up using the photo on Sept. 11 two years in a row and the image has now become a touchstone for my family when that ominous date comes around. Sharing it digitally has extended the life of the moment captured on film.
My mom's beautiful smile is the only thing that could distract from the aching nostalgia of seeing the World Trade Center in this 1972ish photo of the two of us from New York's Liberty Island. I was born in New Jersey and after a few years was raised in my mom Kathy's hometown of Rochester, NY. I'm now thousands of miles away in Seattle, but through the joy of countless Kodak moments in my possession, family is always close at hand. Tragic events on Sept. 11 have made me revisit this image more than any other in the years since 2001. I'm glad to have a more innocent and cherished reminder of the beauty of a blue-sky day over lower Manhattan. shared by ~@kurt_schlosser #savefamilyphotos
With weGather, Niesen thinks she’s built a tool that will get the family conversation started. Americans were already worried that the election was going to derail the ability to have a harmonious holiday gathering in many households. Why not laugh about mullet hairdos and plaid suitcoats instead?
“There’s a reason why #TBT is one of the most popular hashtags,” Niesen said. “Most families have hundreds of disorganized analog photos deteriorating in their homes. These photos hold valuable family memories and are highly susceptible to damage and loss.”
If you’re home for the holidays, it’s a perfect time to start digging into drawers and shoeboxes to gather “icons of ancestry,” as Niesen calls them, and begin the quick digitization process using an app like PhotoScan or CamScanner.
“Every family member will remember something different when they see a photo,” Niesen said. “Take time to ask your loved ones to chime in, before it’s too late. As key family members age, it’s even more imperative to collect stories and memories. That’s why weGather was created to be collaborative; you can easily ask your loved ones what they remember about an old photo. Pretty soon, everyone will be adding their memories.”