Why You Should Preserve Your Family’s Story

I have fond memories of my grandmother telling stories as we lingered around the table long after the family meal had been consumed.  If she never had a story to tell, my mom would.  Maybe that’s why I became a storyteller, as a still photographer and as a filmmaker.

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. We had no warning and then one day she was gone from our lives forever.  I’d give anything to hear her voice again. Or hear her giggle.  Or listen to her tell a story that she had told a hundred times. But other than some scattered photos, Mooney Family, Chicago, ILrandom letters and a few mementos, all I have left are my memories of her. But sadly they have begun to fade.

I’m a commercial photographer and videographer and have shot on assignment for magazines, non-profits and corporations all over the world. I love what I do and the value it has for my clients and their products or message and God willing, I will do that till the day I die but I wanted do something more. I wanted to create personal films (videos) about and for families and preserve their legacy in a keepsake memoir. More importantly, I wanted to capture those family stories through the eyes and voices of a family’s loved ones, while they were still here to tell them and before the memories were gone.

After my mother died I did connect with members of the family to interview them. I must tell you that it was awkward at first but somehow I knew that it was important to do. Here is a short trailer about my mom’s story told through her siblings. Her brother had died before I had made this and a sister has died since but I feel very fortunate to have captured their stories when I had the chance.

I am working on a film now about the Pitney family. The Pitneys had inhabited a property in my town for 11 generations and their story is rich in history not only about their family history but also about our nation. Sadly, the Pitney homestead was destroyed by fire this past winter after over 300 years but the family lives on.   I’m so grateful that I was able to capture and preserve a part of their legacy. Please look at the trailer about the Pitney family and the fire and let me know your thoughts.

A film has the power to preserve family stories Nola Mooney, Garden, Michiganwith imagery, interviews, sound and music. Imagine capturing and preserving your family’s story through the power of cinema. Imagine
what a priceless gift that would be for future generations.

A laugh, a giggle, a blurred smile, a glance, a wink, a memory – a life’s story preserved.

 

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How Creating a Family Story Movie Turned into Something Else

I’m a photographer/filmmaker hybrid. I got my beginnings in the editorial world telling stories through my images all around the world for magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian and Travel & Leisure. Mostly I think of myself as a storyteller. When my mother died unexpectedly over a decade ago I realized that I only had a few photos and mementos to keep her memory alive. I’d give anything to hear her voice or her giggle again or to hear her tell a story that she had told a hundred times.

I knew then that I wanted to create films to preserve a family’s story and legacy.A film has the power to preserve those stories through interviews, imagery, sound and music in a cinematic memoir.

I’ve been working on a film over the last two years about the Pitney family that had inhabited a historic home and farmstead for 11 generations. The farm pitney-farm-before-fire-copyis only about a mile from my house but the family is flung all over the globe. The story seemed almost too big and a bit too distant and I found myself losing focus. Then I met and interviewed one family member, Barbara (Pitney/Lamb) Johnson who had researched and written her family’s biography and was extremely knowledgeable about the family history. She was also incredibly gifted in front of the camera and was able to bring her family’s stories to life through her memories and the warmth and cadence of her voice. It was then I knew that I had the makings of a priceless legacy film.

The farm had not been inhabited since 2013 when the last Pitney to have lived there passed away. The town purchased the farm in 2009 but when the last Pitney inhabitant died in 2013, the future of the historic property became controversial. Some wanted to preserve it for community use and others wanted to sell it. This past winter, one cold February night the Pitney homestead was destroyed by fire. The Morris County, NJ Prosecutor has since been determined the fire to be arson and it remains under investigation.

After the initial shock of the fire pitney-burned-out-shellwore off, I began to realize that I had captured priceless footage of the farm and Pitney family members telling the family’s story. I also realized that I had more than the makings of a just a family story. The Pitney farm had been a binding thread throughout the Pitney family’s history and the property and its demise was another story and a story whose ending has still not been determined.

I finally finished a short preview sample of the Pitney family story . In addition I ended up making a separate preview or trailer of the fire itself. The full feature length film of the family is in production. I’m not quite sure yet where I’ll go with the film about the fire that destroyed the farm but maybe I’ll follow Orson Welles’ advice;  “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story”.

 

Telling Your Family Story

This time of year we try to spend more time with our families and loved ones. It’s also a time of year when we reflect on the people who are no longer with us. For the most part, we rely on our memories and some scattered photographs or home movies and videos.

Some of my fondest memories are of my mother, father and grandparents sitting around the dinner table, long after the holiday meal was over and telling or retelling the family stories. Of course, everyone would recall the same story in an entirely different way – the way they remembered it.

Every family has stories – mine certainly does and I have started to

Mooney family, Easter Sunday, Chicago, IL  (1956-57?)
Mooney Family, Chicago, IL

 

collect information, photographs and even recordings of family members while they are still around to tell them. It’s such an easy thing to do with the tools that technology has provided – easy to use cameras, audio recorders,  and of course, phones that shoot photos and video.

I often think that as photographers and filmmakers we are not only the keepers of our own family stories but we are documenting the stories for other families, through our still images, recordings and videos. Essentially, we are creating an archive of our loved ones and the memories. I believe that is the most precious gift that I can give someone through the talents of my craft. In fact we set up a separate niche of our business, Conteur Productions, to do just that – to archive the family stories in beautifully crafted cinematic videos. The idea isn’t just to string together old still photographs and footage to music, but to capture the stories of our loved ones, on camera while they are still here to tell them in their voice. Imagine, the legacy we leave future generations? My mom is no longer alive but I wish I captured her telling her stories, if only to hear her giggle when she got to the punch line.

As the art of conversation, gives way to virtual communication in our culture, our family stories are fading away with each passing generation. Well, the stories are still there of course, but they often get overlooked in the distractions of our high tech culture. But at the end of the day, it’s our family stories that should be preserved. They remind us of who we are and where we came from and that is priceless.

So as you gather your family together this holiday season – start capturing those life’s moments. You’ll be glad you did.