Family Photo Books Don’t Breathe

Family history - more than a coffee table book

By Kurt Rump

Do you like to create photo books?

I got to thinking about photo books last week when I received an email from Google Photos inviting me to “make a photo book in minutes.”

You might like to make photo books. A lot of people do. Judging by the number of places that are vying for your photos, it must be a pretty good business.

The pitch they all make is pretty much the same. It usually involves printing your best memories, or keeping your favorite moments close at hand. Maybe you can even add captions to your photos. It all sounds very satisfying.

But that’s where it falls apart for me.

First of all

When you print your favorite photos, you are not printing your best memories. The photo is merely a reminder… a “trigger” for your memory. Sure, some photos have an artistic quality and are beautiful to look at. But even those, try as you might, typically fail to capture the raw beauty that inspired you to take the shot. Think about it. How often do you find yourself looking at one of your favorite snapshots and thinking, “That just doesn’t do it justice. You really had to be there.”

It happens to me all the time.

Memories are rich and multi-dimensional. Photos are the two-dimensional objects that bring the memories flooding back. You can show someone a photo of Mount Rushmore all you like, but it will never give them the same sense of awe that you have when standing on the observation deck at the Visitor’s Center and looking up at the majesty of those four giant sculptures carved into the side of a mountain. The photo is not the same as the memory. Not even close.


It’s hard to reduce a story to a caption, yet that’s what you are being asked to do. Adding a caption to a photo will, at best, allow you to capture a sentiment or identify a location. But you and I both know that the nature of the discussion between you and those who were with you when the photo was taken will be far more engaging than that. Each of you will have memories to share, and your conversation will bring those memories to life.

Here’s what happened when my cousin shared a favorite photo in a TightKnit® Story Album.

The photo was simple enough. It was a summer day in the early 1960’s. My brother, cousin, and I were standing in a freshly mowed alfalfa field. I’m holding a burlap gunny sack. My brother and cousin are each clutching a baby rabbit.

That photo set off vivid memories for all three of us.

I could see the tractor passing through the tall alfalfa, its attached sickle mower slicing through the stems and laying them down to be dried for baling. The smell of freshly cut alfalfa filled the air.

Rabbit families had made their nests in the cover of the alfalfa, but that cover was quickly being removed. At first, the rabbits would retreat to the center of the field. But we knew that, with each pass of the tractor, there would soon be no place for them to hide. Eventually they would be flushed out.

That’s when the fun began!

As soon as some rabbits bolted from the cover of tall alfalfa into the open spaces of the freshly cut field, the chase was on! The photo provided evidence of our modest triumph.

My cousin described how amazing it was for a “city boy” like him to race through the alfalfa field and corral young rabbits in the wild. He recalled (and could plainly see from his body language in the photo) that he was not as comfortable handling the furry critters as his “country boy” cousin.

Our conversation around that photo also triggered questions from others in the family. Where was the alfalfa field? Who owned it? What did you do with the rabbits you caught?

And these discussions triggered other memories about close encounters with nature that had nothing to do with rabbits, but revealed some fun, interesting, and often entertaining tidbits… little pieces of the puzzle that helped shape each of us into who we are.

So, tell me. How do you capture that in a simple photo caption? The answer is, you don’t.


What happens to that photo book after you receive it? You will likely page through it once or twice. It will rekindle your memories (a few of which you were able to record in the captions) and give you some momentary satisfaction. And then it will live for a while on the coffee table… before being moved to a bookshelf… before you move it again to make room for something else.

And how many copies of the photo book will you print? For whom? And will those who receive one have some photos of their own that would have been fun to include?

Your book will probably be a good trigger for conversation, especially with others who are familiar with its content, as I mention in another post. That will lead to additional reminiscing and storytelling. While a good social experience, none of it will be captured or recorded in the book.

That’s the problem I have with photo books. They are static. They don’t breathe. The life in those photos is lived outside the covers of the book more so than in its pages, even though the photos were carefully selected and thoughtfully assembled.

Don’t get me wrong. Photo books can be wonderful gifts. Go ahead and create one if you are so inclined. But don’t let that be all you do if you truly want to preserve some family history for future generations.

There are better solutions for that. Tools that are collaborative and open-ended. Solutions that breathe.

Recognize the value your photos have, not as memories, but as triggers for them. Use them to prompt for the stories BEHIND the photos. Then, invite others who have a shared interest in the subject to join the conversation.

That’s what we do in our family.

Here’s to the stories,

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