Dust to Digits: Writing Our Stories Through Family Photographs

By Michelle Pacansky-Brock: Michelle, partners with her team at CSU Channel Islands to explore the impact of connected and humanized online and blended learning environments. Also known as @brocansky and the VoiceThread Goddess, Michelle is also currently working on the second edition of her book, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies.

Great Grandmother

Image from by Michelle Pacansky-Brock


Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds rather precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly.”  – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 98

When I was a little girl, my mother often shared her old family photographs with me. The photographs were stored in a tin trunk under my parents’ bed. Kneeling on the floor, pulling out that trunk, cracking it open, and unleashing the musty scent contained inside became our ritual for initiating our travel through time. My mom, a first-generation born American who was born to two German immigrants, would share stories about her family members.

Photographs were especially important to my mom, as she experienced the tragic loss of her sister and only sibling at the age of 39 and the sudden passing of her mother just two years later. Looking at and sharing stories about the images imprinted on the old torn piece of paper was — and still is — her way of visiting her loved ones. There was a palpable connection between my mom and the time and space of the fading figures portrayed in the images, it was as if the photographs had a magical ability to collapse time for her.

We repeated this tradition numerous times throughout my childhood, often with my two sisters. I also ventured into the tin box on my own sometimes, gazing into the fading eyes of relatives who I had never met. Over time, the photographs became familiar to me; yet, there was one that I secretly treasured more than the others. It was a small, sepia-toned image printed on cardstock (known as a carte de visite). It measured about 2” by 3”. The corners were torn and the surface of the image was heavily scratched. On the back, my mother had written the name of my maternal great grandmother in pen, but aside from that there were no identifying marks on the print.

Despite the ambiguity of the photograph’s context, this image resonated with me. “You are my great grandmother,” I used to think to myself, as if she were there in the room with me. My great grandmother lived in Germany until the age of 99 and passed away when I was quite young. I never met her. I would scour the surface of that image with my eyes, in a desperate quest to know her. I wanted so much to find that “something” that would transport me from the floor of my parents’ bedroom to that moment she stood in front of the camera’s lens.

Through this search, I recall admiring her appearance. I wondered if I’d be fortunate enough to grow into the beautiful woman she was. I would gaze at her dress and imagine what the fabric felt like and what color it was. I resented the scratches that removed the details of her face, as I believed that’s where her essence would be revealed to me. Yet, I never found what I searched for in that photograph.

A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).     -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp. 26-27.

Postcard 1915

Image from by Michelle Pacansky-Brock

At some point through the years, however, my mother shared more about my great grandmother that transformed how I related to that photograph and, ultimately, how I understood myself. There was an old postcard mixed in with the photos in the trunk that had a message composed in hand-written script on the back, which I could not read — and neither could my mother. She explained that it was a postcard my great grandmother wrote to her husband (my great grandfather) during World War I, sometime after he left for battle. It was postmarked August 16, 1915. My mother also pointed out a phrase, written more rigidly in red ink in the blank space near the postmark stamp. One word was decipherable: “gefallen” with the date August 25, 1915 just below. Gefallen. The German word for “killed in action.”

I imagined my great grandmother writing that postcard by candlelight, after getting her five young daughters settled into bed for the night.  I imagined the care it took to write in such detailed, beautiful German script (known as Sütterlin). I imagined her taking the time to be sure the ink had dried. And I imagined her slipping the postcard into a cloth mailbag, picturing it arriving in her husband’s warm hands.

While I don’t know the details of how the situation actually occurred, I also imagined how she must have felt upon receiving the returned postcard, a love letter transformed into a death notice. I imagine how she went about her life after that moment. How that experience transformed her, made her reach inside and embrace the strength she didn’t know she had. I imagine how that strength was transferred to her five young daughters, now fatherless, in war-torn Germany. “War hero” meant something very different to me from that moment on.

After learning of that story, I never looked at the photograph of my great grandmother the same again. Her body, once a graceful representation of female beauty, conveyed power and pride. The scratches on the surface and the torn corners were less of a nuisance from that point. Instead, I related to them as footprints tracing a long, arduous journey. I wondered where the photograph had been and who had held it. I wondered about photographs that I didn’t have access to and others that were never taken.

But that wasn’t all that changed for me. I also began to relate to myself differently. As I grew up, I felt the strength of my great grandmother inside myself. Knowing her story and imagining what her life experiences were like empowered me to know I too was strong. I wasn’t just a “pretty little girl;” I was her great granddaughter. And my mother was her granddaughter. And my grandmother was one of those little girls tucked in bed as she wrote that postcard. While I have had many empowering experiences in my lifetime, this story opened a new way of understanding where I came from, who I was, and what I could do.  

Personal photographs are like treasures. They document our past and connect us with those who lived before us. However, the stories we associate with a photograph construct the way we relate to it and the way we remember and value the subject(s) rendered upon its surface.

In our digital age, any photograph — no matter how old — can become a liquid photograph, enabling us to share stories with the world through blog posts, like this one. This is an ideal strategy for engaging students in the process of writing, because the process of writing fades away and becomes invisible when our efforts are focused on sharing a story. Last year, I sent my online community college students on a “Photo Quest.” One of the topics from which they chose was titled, “Who am I?” This topic’s task was to excavate a story from their past through a conversation with a family member about an old photograph (an alternative topic was provided for students who did not have access to family photographs and/or family members). One of my students shared this story about a photograph of him and his sister, each clutching a toy. The photograph led to a conversation with his mom, which unearthed a story about his first day of kindergarten in Tijuana, Mexico. Before that Photo Quest, he had no memory of attending kindergarten in Mexico. That event was, as he wrote, “something that was just swept under the rug, not really a secret, but just never mentioned and eventually just forgotten.”

Connecting our formalized curriculum with our students’ real-world experiences is fundamental to ensure learning is relevant. Using old photographs to connect students with the past is not only a great strategy for engaging students, it’s also way to excavate the marginalized stories from the past that will otherwise be forgotten.

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

Search around those old boxes or file cabinets, and dig out some old photographs. What stories simmer beneath the surface of the visual? What stories do they tell? What stories can you tell about the stories they tell? Consider perusing the United States Library of Congress collections of historical photographs, or find out if your own country of origin has its own collection. What do photos say about the country?

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

8 thoughts on “Dust to Digits: Writing Our Stories Through Family Photographs

  1. Beautiful Michelle, such a deep homage to family photographs. You express this in a way that makes me want to write about my 15 year online search for my mothers biological family. She was adopted at birth in Scotland and had a hazy memory of meeting her grandad their at around 4. My goal was a photo of my grandfather and we got that photo. It was precisely how I imagined based on mums memory. We also got a whole lot more than just photographs. Very emotional story as my mum and I met her biological sisters in Scotland last year, but that photograph to me was the touchstone treasure for some reason. Your writing is stirring my own need to write that story, although I’m not sure if I can yet. Thank you for sharing your photograph tin and the stories within.

  2. Wonderful family story. The world wars had such a great influence on our ancestors’ lives.

    My dad and grandma hid people in the WWII in their home. Some were young men from the village hiding from the “Arbeitseinsatz” ( forced labor in Germany ), others were allied pilots who’s plane was shot down. They lived very near the border with Germany.

    I remember reading “Aus dem Westen nichts neues” by Erich Maria Remarque ( no news from the west ) as a young lad. Made a big impression on me. It deals with a young man’s life at the front in WWI in Belgium. Horrible things going on there at that time.

  3. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written story, Michelle. I have postcards very similar to yours in the same German handwriting (difficult to read!) in an old rusty chocolate tin (which has its own story). You’ve inspired me to dig out some of these paper treasures which contain traces of family who live on through the connection between the paper and our imagination.

  4. My son collects vintage photos–those that have be abandoned at thrift shops and flea markets…and they inspire his art. I love the untold stories in photos…even when the people in the images are strangers. I also love to take photos of people I don’t know, especially capturing the character of those I come across on the beach. I have a series of photos I’ve taken called #beachpeople…and there are some stories there!

    Thanks so much for the inspiration…and for your own stories.



  5. Michelle
    I love this post, for many reasons, but it brings up an interesting question for the Digital Age: Now that we have so many ways to take photographs, and now that we do take so many photographs, how do we curate the flood of artifacts from our lives? I’m looking at my computer photostream and there is too much, already. Too dang much.
    Will a future generation stumble upon some single image that captures a lifetime? We don’t quite tuck photos into physical spaces where someone down the road might stumble onto it and begin an exploration of whom we were.
    Or will they?
    Will Flickr and Google Photos and Photos apps become a permanent home for our photographs of life? Is that what we want? What about a data breach or computer fail or …. what happens? We lose more than the images. We lose our stories.
    Of course, the digital has opened up storytelling and use of images — and yes, curating, too, if we take the time to do it — in new and amazing ways that I love so dearly.
    But still, I wonder … do you?

    • I’m not sure I buy the arguments about digitization transforming our image memory capacity and organizational skills. It smacks a bit of the “digital native” myth, how somehow the use of the current range of electronic technology is inherently on a different scale or in a different dimension from anything before it. We must always have ways to remind ourselves which pile, digital or physical, deserves a look, where the piles are, and how our looking will transform what we see. Archaeologists and historians have done this kind of work and had these kinds of discussions for millennia. I’m not convinced our struggles are new or profoundly different from those of the ancients, or of non-literate societies past and present.

  6. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Service | Thinking Through My Lens

  7. Michelle: your story of your great-grandmother made me both nod and weep. I posted my recent favourite photo on my Twitter feed on Remembrance Day, and your post has made me realize that it deserves more than that.

    During a recent visit with my 94 year old grandmother, she pulled out 2 things from a “memory box” – one was a photo taken from the dock as the ship she and my father and aunt were on left Bremen for Canada in 1954, and the other was the ticket for that sailing. I was astounded! I quickly took a picture of both, and have been carrying them in my “digital heart” (aka my photo roll) for the last few months. For me, that document, marked with my grandmother’s name before she remarried (the only time I’ve seen her full written name with the last name we shared) and its date stamp speak so much of the incredibly journey that brought her to where she is now. And yes, her story of strength helped me realize that, as her granddaughter, I was strong and capable of just about anything.

    I really need to write about this, and hugely appreciate the prompt. Thanks so very much for sharing your story.

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