Using Your Senses to Uncover Your Family History, Part One: Stop…and Look

“Mary’s Hamburgers” aka the Swedish State Bank in Chicago; photo credit: Blueprint Chicago

I love to walk. For over 30 years, I’ve walked in my adopted city of Boston. I know most of the streets, the byways, and the landmarks. But until I became a volunteer architectural and historical tour guide, I had no idea what I was missing. As part of our knowledge base, we were asked to identify cornices and pediments, stringcourses and lintels…in other words, we had to look up. From that moment on, I lived in a new city, or, at least, a renewed city. Buildings familiar to me at eye level were rejuvenated by the dates I found beneath the roof pediments. I suddenly discovered that a building with a burrito shop on the first floor and a modern façade had been built in 1867! Now, whenever I take a walk, I look at the buildings from eye level, as I always have, but then I look up, for a glance at a fresh, new world. Looking up has also helped me see the sky in a new way (yes, even in the city) and recently, I was introduced to the world of Jack Borden, whose passion in life is getting school kids to see what’s going on in the clouds (for a treat, see his website).


And what does all of this have to do with the work of personal history? Try taking a photograph of someone(s) in your family, one you have seen a hundred times before. Stop. Look around inside the photograph at the expressions on the faces, at the cars or buildings in the background, at the clouds in the sky, for that matter. What does the photo tell you about that captured moment that you’ve never considered before? What questions does it make you want to ask? Where does it lead you in the journey to create a full history of the family or person you are studying?


If you like the idea, try it, and share your findings with others on this blog.
And a much belated Happy 2013 to all!

One response to Using Your Senses to Uncover Your Family History, Part One: Stop…and Look
  1. Pam…I just read your newsletter about looking at old photos. I use a book, PhotoLanguage by Robert Akeret, in my online Guided Autobiography instructor training classes. He goes into the same questions you posed and really shows how much a person can learn by really Looking at (or maybe I should say, into) a photo.
    Thanks so much for pointing out the importance of photos when reviewing one’s life. Best, Cheryl

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