Ponga Blog Post

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash
January 13, 2023

When you save your photos, don’t forget to save your stories too!

Ponga lets you digitally archive the files, organize the images, & crowdsource the stories — even as the metadata is protected

Your Photos connect you with your story

Modern digital technologies have changed our relationship with artifacts like photographs, albums, and scrapbooks. At Ponga, we’re building a better way to use pictures to reconnect families, friends, and communities with the stories that bring them together. This makes us very sensitive to how modern technologies have changed our relationship with physical artifacts like photos, mementos, and albums.

Digitizing may capture the image, but what about the stories?

Whether through inexperience, impatience, or obliviousness, scans can be made poorly. Copies can be cropped, downsized, and modified. The context of the original physical artifact whether through notations or physical placement might be lost. In my family, and perhaps yours, a thoughtful grandmother and aunt made notations in pencil on the backs of photos with names, dates, and sometimes locations. Two-sided scanning can often pick this detail up to keep with the original file.

Another way to add context back into an image uses fields and descriptions that are part of the JPG, PNG, TIF, and other image file types. These fields are usually referred to as metadata. This information is like a card catalog entry for the image file. It may or may not be structured and can add detail and keywords that make the image easier to find. Metadata can be helpful, but it’s not a panacea.

“Lizzy” left an inscription from the inside a scrapbook she kept most of her life. It, combined with this family portrait provides metadata that can be matched with known genealogical facts like birth dates.

Metadata and stories

In practice, copies ARE made, and context is lost. Added content added can be incorrect. Metadata embedded into photographs as EXIF data can be lost as photos are shared using a variety of server types. Basic facts that might have been apparent when photos were tucked into a scrapbook a generation ago are lost. Once those who remembered are gone clues can be gleaned from the image and trigger conversation that crowdsources of stories.

Did grandmother who put the album of anniversary pictures together really know everything that happened that day? Perhaps not. Your crowd might recognize the handwriting in the young girl’s script saying “Uncle Obadiah” on the envelope tucked inside the scrapbook. These are clues and fodder for your crowd to explore.

As more of the narrative comes together and we know what questions to ask. We know from other genealogical evidence that the young girl, Elizabeth “Lizzy” E. Jaques was born in 1865 and married in 1887. We can now reach out to sites like family websites, Facebook groups, and Ancestry, to find others who might have more bits of evidence or leads to research. We can then invite family members privately explore the context we know and have them share what they know. Slowly her story emerges, and her connection to “Uncle Obadiah.

When you scan a photo, you release it from its physical confines as an artifact. Once it’s digital, it’s so much easier to share. It’s easy yes — but that convenience also separates it from the context that connects it with a narrative. Without that context, that story, the photo might just as easily be a postcard or stock photo.

Once digital, Ponga creates a way add context back into photos

We wanted something that could tell richly personal stories about the people in our lives. It had to be easy enough that it would be fun to share with those we care about most, so that the stories could get back into circulation and help make those connections. We had to do this while preserving the originals AND the added content.

To do that, we built Ponga as an easy way to put names to faces and create a private way to share them with authentic personal details. We wanted it to feel like sitting with your grandmother and exploring a family album over a cup of tea.

Grandfather at his roll top desk, in Ponga. Photo: Personal collection. A voice recording of the little girl remembering her grandfather. Notice that a photo can be added when a voice recording is added. A great way to add the voices of elders

The name Ponga comes from the Spanish verb “poner” which means to put. We wanted a way to “put a story in a picture,” so we added elements like a mic so you could add stories in your own voice. As others explore your stories, we knew we needed a way for them to contribute to the richness of the story by adding their own details. For more about the kinds of content you can add to a Ponga picture, See 12 Kinds of Content You Can Add to Your Ponga Picture Stories.

“I remember grandfather’s roll top desk. He used to leave me crayons there in my own little drawer to keep me busy when I visited at the newspaper.” —voice recorded in the picture.

Photographs make a moment stand still so you can tell the story.

Did you inherit boxes of old pictures?

If you’re a Gen X’er or Boomer, then your grandparents or great-grandparents were probably among first generation to be photographed in the mid-19th century. These photos document your own connection with historic events and experiences. Through faded family photographs, the American Civil War, The Spanish Flu, and the Civil Rights Movement, can connect with each of us in a very personal way.

”I want my great-grandchildren to know what we went through and why we made the choices we made.”

This is powerful stuff and we take these responsibilities to legacy very seriously. It’s an entirely different mindset from the amusements in social media. We believe photos can be the trays that put stories back into circulation.

Stories are the precious cargo carried in photos.

First, Preserve

Archivists at the world’s great institutional libraries see their primary duty as one of preservation. At Ponga, we know that our members have invested time and money to protect the original artifacts they scan. The scanned images provide one level of backup. It’s our job to preserve and protect the digital image files they put in our trust.

We always start by making a working copy of the image in any file size of PNG, JPG, or TIF format. The original image, full size, and complete with metadata is put into archival storage. We don’t tamper with it, down-size, or modify it. We just preserve and protect it. For more on our policies, see Can I get my stuff back.

Then, turn artifacts into conversations & stories

Once in Ponga, you can turn any image into a conversation. Not every image file you bring into Ponga has to be a photograph. Members like Victoria’s Press have shown us how transformative Ponga can be. Victoria’s “Storyboards” collect multiple storytelling images into a single Ponga picture. Her “Pongaports” turn printed photo book albums into interactive Ponga albums.

Victoria’s story of immigration is one of the many narratives emerging from photographs brought into Ponga today. Tales of heroism, persistence, and wonder are now finding their way into interactive, digital archives shared privately across geography, generations and time.

At Ponga, we learn every day how digitized artifacts—and more importantly the stories—are used to bring people together across generations and geographies.

(This article was originally published in concert with Save Your Photos Month, in September 2021, updated in January 2023.)

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