How Cameo Narratives Make Your Photo Captions More Meaningful

This is a guest post by Denis Ledoux

I wish had a picture of that moment.

I wish there were a way to keep that memory alive.

Photos are the driving force behind the story told in most albums—no photo, no story. But should it be that way? I want to help you tell a lifestory in your scrapbooks using the events and relationships of your life, not the photos you happen to have on hand, as your primary organizing element. This ordering principle, more than any other, will help you make meaningful lifestory photo albums using photos, captions, and cameo narratives.

open photo album

Telling Your Lifestory

Photos depict an external version of our lives. They capture only material, visual things–leaving the viewer to guess about the deeper, sometimes hidden meaning. The complexities of a given situation or experience may seem too difficult or embarrassing to put into words—so we leave them out and stick to names and dates. Or, we let those parts of the story show up in the storyline we tell a friend–perhaps in an off- hand manner–as we leaf through the pages of the album. This oral sharing fills the need we have to communicate the more complex story, but the spoken words exist only briefly. Once we have finished speaking, the story is again at risk of being forgotten.

 

Yes, Your Stories Are at Risk

Let’s say you have begun to place your photos in albums and have given some thought to arranging them on a well-designed page. Let’s say you have been careful to label each picture with an identifying caption such as: “Galveston Beach – Galveston, TX (1974).

Parents playing with 2 young boys on beach
Galveston Beach – Galveston, TX (1974)

Every time you look at that photo of your time at the beach, a flood of memories washes over you. You recall that it was that day, as you watched a couple playing with their two young boys, that you decided you were ready to have a child and to quit your unsatisfying job. Your experience of making that life decision that day at the shore is still vivid to you as you look at the familiar image. But the caption says only “Galveston Beach – Galveston, TX (1974).” None of what was most significant about that day and place is recorded in your album. How can you, even if you want to, record a decision (or the feelings that went into it) in a photo? You can’t! But, you can write the following narrative (I call it a cameo narrative) to put underneath the photo(s) or on the page next to them.

Parents playing with 2 young boys on beach
On the beach, I watched a couple playing with their two young boys. Their pleasure was so clear that I realized I wanted more than anything to be a parent, too. It was more important than the stressful job at Nichols I was trying to hold on to. Nothing else besides becoming a parent myself seemed to matter after that day.

You’ll notice that this cameo narrative is quite different from (and reveals a lot more than) the sort of comment line that reads: “Sun ‘n’ Sand. What a fun day at the beach!”   Without a thoughtful narrative, the story of what was important at Galveston’s Beach is a secret in the process of being lost—even though a well-preserved photograph presents the sun, the water, and the smile on your face. With the narrative, though, the vacation photo takes its place as a more complex record of a special time in your life and a turning point in your family’s history. What a meaningful story the photo and the narrative make to pass on!

Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux

Twice a Maine Writing Fellow, Denis Ledoux believes the photo album—hardcopy or digital—is a natural medium for recording the stories behind our photos. In 1996 and 1997, he addressed national conventions of Creative Memories in Minnesota.

Rhonda Anderson, co-founder of Creative Memories, wrote, The Photo Scribe (1997, 2004, 2008) has inspired me to a new level of photo-journaling.” Denis has helped thousands of people to write their personal and family stories in writing since 1988.

Check out his many photoscribing products including a PhotoScribe Package. Don’t get caught developing an album—hardcopy or digital—without photoscribing it!

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10 Comments on "How Cameo Narratives Make Your Photo Captions More Meaningful"

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Art Taylor
Guest

Good post, Denis. Thanks for sharing with Curtis and his readers.

jelly59
Guest

Thank you for this, I found it really useful.

I find it really boring when people show me their pictures & there’s no info with them. I’m afraid I switch off after a while.

I also don’t enjoy looking at people’s pix on a computer, as some people click to the next one too fast.

Curtis Bisel
Admin

I couldn’t agree more “jelly59.” It can be very challenging offering much of a conversation with someone showing you their photos when they are just them standing in front of location A, then location B, and then tourist attraction C. You’re right, it becomes easy to do things like judging the quality of their smile from one to the next! Haha. I too like to know a story, so that I know why it’s important to this person that a photo was taken in front of location A or B and why they want to remember it.

Gam Kau
Guest

I’m working on this at the moment, but it’s a pretty arduous task!

Curtis Bisel
Admin

Gam, are you personally finding anything that is helping you make the task any easier? Any kinds of mental checklists like “who, what, when, where, why” kinds of things etc., or possibly a way of asking family members for help that is useful?

Cassandra
Guest

I create digital albums to be printed and I’ve found that if I create the page leaving room for text and show it to a friend or family member – I start spitting out stories as they are looking through it on my computer and I go back later and add that to the page before printing. Another person I found prints the digital album with lots of white space and as she is looking through it with someone and telling stories she pulls out a decent pen or sharpie pen and writes it in the white space in the actual book.

Curtis Bisel
Admin

I like both of those ideas Cassandra. There’s really something to be said there, that when you are in front of someone that is not familiar with the stories in the photos, it’s easier to present them in way anyone can relate to them, as opposed to how you might caption them if you are writing alone. When alone, it’s often easy to fall into that trap where you are merely describing them in a way for you to remember them later, and then recall the little bits of information that you purposely left out of your description. But, when you are sitting in front of a real person, you are obliged to dig deep and quickly sum up the entire story and not leave out that pertinent information that only you possess.

I am so anal about editing text and images, I don’t know that I could ever trust myself to write in, with my own handwriting, in a bit of white space in a finished and printed photo book! Boy, that makes me squeamish just thinking about it — Ha! But, I have love that idea, and admire someone who can make a decision that quickly and contently to be able to grab a Sharpie and make it permanent!

Cassandra
Guest

I am right there with you on the sharpie. I do try to incorporate my handwriting in my digital albums here and there by scanning it in after proofreading and writing very carefully. My husband and I are making a family recipe book to be printed and he suggested I leave room for us to write on the page at the bottom of the recipe for little quick notes – I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that, but I love the idea of it.

Curtis Bisel
Admin

Something I would probably have to do, at least the first time trying this is one of the following:

1) Print a second copy of the book and have it as a “mint” backup in case (when) I filled the original with too many write-os (is that a word yet??) and crossed out scribbles I would be too embarrassed to pass down through the family.

2) Possibly applying small Post-It notes on top of the white spaced areas and hand writing the information on those temporarily. Then as time goes on, if I am happy with what I wrote and I am ready to make it permanent, I could then sit down and carefully copy the information into the space.

And for those with really poor handwriting, a sign that we all spend more (too much) time typing those days, could consider hiring someone with really good penmanship to fill it in for them!

Dawn
Guest

Thrilled to Denis featured on your website! I have been avid follower of his methods for years, and it’s great to see his perspective regarding the stories behind the photos! Besides my photo project, I’ve also been writing my life stories, interviewing relatives, and even convinced my dad to write some of his own recollections smile

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