How Cameo Narratives Make Your Photo Captions More Meaningful

This is a guest post by Denis Ledoux

I wish I 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 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 (headshot)

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, a 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 write their personal and family stories since 1988. 

Check out his many photoscribing products including a PhotoScribe Package. Don't get caught developing a hard copy or digital album without photoscribing it!


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