Writing Your Story One Photograph at a Time

Ten Ways to Share Your Photo Stories with Others

by Darlene O'Dell

Those of us in the Family Narrative Project have founds thousands of unidentified photographs in thrift stores, salvage shops, antique malls, and consignment stores. We have come to believe that a photograph survives through the generations when a story is connected to it—not just names and dates, but an actual story that tells us something about the people or places in an image.

How, though, can you share the story with family and loved ones after you have written it? Below are ten of our favorite ways for giving stories. In these examples, we focus on sharing your photographs and stories as hard copies rather than through digital sites.

1. The 20 Photo Memoir

If you are overwhelmed at the thought of producing a 300-page memoir but want to leave your descendants information about the meaningful events in your life, try writing your story one photograph at a time. Imagine if your ancestors had left you their thoughts about 20 photographs from their lives. It would be an archival treasure chest.

Choose any number of photographs you like: 20, 50, 10, or 5 (the mini-memoir).

Compile your work using Mixbook, Canva, Blurb, or other online sites where you can easily (relatively easily😊) produce hard copies. Or you might try a traditional publisher like the Sheridan Group. We created this 20 Photo Memoir cover on Canva.

2. The Notebook

Going old school has some advantages. Buy a three-ring notebook, put a copy of a photo of your own in the clear view front pocket, and place your photos and stories (written on blank index cards) into archival quality photo sheets (sometimes called photo pages, sheet protectors, photo sleeve inserts). The photo sheets come in a variety of pocket sizes, from wallet to 4”x6” to full sheet and so forth.

If you live in the Carolinas, you might try Ball Camera in Asheville

or Spartan Photo is Spartanburg.

By using a notebook, you can add and subtract pages at will and create themed-based books. The notebook shown here is made by [In] Place and the sheet protectors by Print File. Both are archival safe.

3. The Portfolio

I love the idea of a portfolio that can be added to at various events and on significant occasions. The one pictured here is the Cachet Portfolio Hardboard Classic 9’’x12”, found in art stores or online. We use archival quality photo corners to connect the photograph to linen resume paper.

Unless your writing is undecipherable, don’t be afraid to handwrite your piece. Your descendants may be interested in your handwriting style—it adds a bit of personality.

Give these individual stories for holidays or birthdays, adding to the portfolio over time. You could begin a tradition of giving the pieces to the children in your family, reading the stories at bedtime or next to a fire—hot chocolate in hand.

Remember, too, that elders in your family are wonderful resources. Arrange a coffee and listen, then later return the story to them in a hard copy form.

4. The Photo Album

Order an archival quality Noci Photo Album from Kolo.com. This small journal with 24 photo openings is great for giving a thematic gift to someone. You might want to create an album about a particular vacation, ballgame, year, family reunion. . . . The journal below is the Lake edition, but many colors are available. Use some of the openings for photographs and some for blank index cards where you tell the stories about the photographs.

The image below shows an example from artist and poet Janine Lehane, who uses the left sleeve for a photo and the right sleeve for her poem about the photo.

5. The Holiday Letter

Use your photograph in a holiday letter. I put these letterheads together in a few minutes on Canva, but you might want to purchase yours from a favorite stationery store.

In any event, copy your photo and story to the paper and tell your loved ones an old story for the holidays. Make it an annual tradition.

6 and 7. The Photo Cube and Collage Frame

These two formats are excellent for sharing your photographs and stories. Again, save some of the frame openings for the stories that you have written on blank index cards. With the memory box, you might consider the box. These examples are from Etsy.

8. The Handmade Book

My writer friends Eileen Ross and Gayle Worthy have shown me ways to create handmade books for photos and stories. Initially, Gayle was focused on getting her stories to her loved ones quickly and easily, so using a few red ribbons, she collected six of her Christmas stories about her fascinating, funny, and compassionate family from Mississippi, and gave them as gifts.

During the particularly difficult Christmas of 2020, I found that revisiting these stories gave me a much-needed laugh. Sometimes keeping it simple is more than enough. Think of author Langston Hughes’ Christmas postcards from 1950.

Recently, and with the help of a friend, Gayle has begun putting her work into other handmade books, as shown below. When the project is completed, the six signatures will go into one of these covers.

Eileen, a visual artist as well as a writer, created this book. If you are an artist (or even if you’re not), give it a try. Incorporate your photographs and stories within the pages of your own handmade book. Eileen kept the stitching of the book simple, though obviously the artwork is much more complex.

9. Create a Canva Poster

Though Canva offers paid subscriptions for their design tool, you can create fascinating projects with their free version and then order copies of your project from the site. A 12”x16” poster, for instance, costs only $6.00. You can design a poster for a nursery or for an art gallery, as youthful or sophisticated as you like.

Copy your story and photograph to Canva’s poster template and have it printed and shipped to yourself or directly to a loved one. You might also consider involving the young people in your life in the process of creating the poster. It’s a great “summer camp” activity for visiting children.

10. The Poetry Broadside

Closely related to the poster, broadsides are centuries old, used to announce news, make political statements, advertise products, spread songs. . . .

In the 1960s and 1970s, poetry broadsides gained popularity, and they have recently made a comeback. I created this one in memory of my mother. She was not a published poet but loved to write poetry and would sometimes write through the night.

Maybe one of your ancestors was a poet. Maybe you’re a poet. Try your hand at broadsides. I put this one together on Canva.


We hope you have some fun with these ideas and, in the process, find ways to save both your photographs and your stories. And join us in our online course—Writing Your Story One Photograph at a Time—at Elon Next, the university’s lifelong learning program. In this course, we employ a combination of writing, concentrated examining, and close listening to help you unlock the stories about your photographs. Let us help you put ink to paper and to soothe those critical voices that can wreak havoc with creativity.

We believe at the Family Narrative Project that by giving form and permanence to stories of courage and resolution, of success and heartbreak, we provide a needed resource to both individual families and the human family at large. It’s at the heart of our mission.

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