How Can An Object Tell a Story?
Here’s how and why it matters that their stories are told
By looking at an object, we intuitively consider it from different points of view. When you hold object cherished by a loved one, it becomes easy to slip into their shoes, imagine them using it, and how they felt about it.
In this article, we’ll focus on objects and artifacts, and how these ordinary things can be used to tell stories about our family and the people around us. You’ll learn about how photographing these objects not only helps document why they were important, it also preserves the stories so they can shed light on the people who owned, loved, or used them.
How are objects and artifacts different from photos?
Objects are just things that have physical characteristics. A paperweight, for example. An artifact may be an object, but it may also be a document, certificate, or some other paper piece that had a notable place or significance. At Ponga, our software allows images to capture and share not only family stories but also the references that give them context.
Images of people are special because your ability to recognize them immediately gives them context. You value the photo for the person it captured. Boxes of photos find their way to thrift stores when those who acquire them can no longer remember who was in the picture and why they were important.
We tend to focus on photos as the core of family storytelling because they tell us what someone looked like and what their appearance says about our relationship.
Why are objects so important to our family storytelling?
Here at Ponga, we’re all about family stories. The tales that hide in our family photos ground us in who we are individually and as a family. Our software creates a new way to quickly and easily capture who was included in a photograph — and tell the stories about why the moment was important. Connecting the image to external materials like videos and documents lets us share the larger context, or simply justify our assertion as we crowdsource more details.
We find important objects inside every tub of family photos. Because these objects were loved, used, or acquired as gifts, they carry stories just like the photos. These might be simple, personal objects like paperweights, pens, and medals, or important family pieces like antiques and quilts.
Wrapped in memories, these objects are often beloved heirlooms. While research might explain origins or functions, their most important role is often in the personal context, values and priorities they convey. These ideas are communicated in stories.
In a family, these stories outlast the object. For example,
My grandfather gave my mother a gold cigarette lighter for her 16th birthday. The quality of the gold lighter, the weight of it, and the extraordinary significance of it as a gift for a teenager are shocking by today’s standards. The 1940s were decades before cancer warnings. The lighter is long gone, but they’re a compelling reminder about the norms of smoking at the time. Today we mourn the many relatives were lost to cancer.
How to crafting an object’s story
To craft an object’s story, you have to remember that it’s not really about the object. It doesn’t have feelings. What matters is the “hook,” the scene, challenge, or the significance it held for the person who owned, used, or loved it. If you can convey that story, you’ve given the object superpowers.
Through your storytelling, the object becomes a cargo container for a larger story train. By focusing on the object and the “hook” in your story, you move the narrative train along.
If you’ve ever shown guests around your home, you may feel the need to “explain” objects in plain view. The player piano, the bear-skin rug, or the wagon wheel. When pieces are remarkable their stories beg to be told. Your job is to capture those stories so that they’re passed down and the objects are appreciated.
Contribute to the Narrative Arc by Degrees
If your parents, siblings, and cousins trusted you to take responsibility for the collection, you probably have a trove of material including scrapbooks of clippings, albums of photographs, folders of documents — maybe even recipe cards.
What YOU decide to DO with these materials may be a matter of your personal tolerance for clutter—and disposable income. Working with professionals is a wonderful option for those who can afford it. Pros can help you sort through the clutter to find the most important pieces and ensure that materials are archived properly and stories are properly researched.
Most people, however, don’t have the budget and aren’t really interested in outsiders judging their collections and stories. They’d like to get started, but they don’t want to feel overwhelmed by it either.
The secret is to get to small wins quickly. Find a way to add and share stories one image at a time.
If your contributions capture what you know and you can bring others to share their stories, you’ll have made a few degrees of progress in that larger narrative arc of your family history. By getting started sooner you have a better chance of tapping into the living memories of loved ones. With our aging elders, time is often of the essence.
Here’s a way to get started now.
Use Ponga to Tell Stories in Pictures
How Ponga Works
Ponga is cloud-based software that you use to tell stories. It runs on any computer with a modern web browser. (Learn more about Ponga here.) To use Ponga, you first add your photographs and other images to Ponga where they’re permanently archived.
You add stories to Ponga much the way you would point to an object and tell a little story in real life. In using Ponga, you’re image is digital, your pointing makes a selection, and what you add could be said audibly with your voice, typed in as a story with accompanying pictures, or linked in with any link accessible on the web.
To add your own voice to tell the story, you just click the mic button and begin a recording. Stop the recording when you’re done. That’s it. It’s fast, fun, and easy. Plus, you can share your Ponga picture as a link so anyone you invite can add their own memories at their own convenience.
Since pictures of people are so important, Ponga applies an examination with advanced AI to every image you add so that you can make quick work of putting names to faces.
Everything you add or link to a Ponga picture is private. It isn’t a social media platform. Ponga members own—and control—their photos archived on Ponga’s servers. Ponga’s unique web-based approach lets members to invite family and friends to contribute to their stories as free guests — without the compromising privacy and integrity of the material collected.
Why it matters
Ponga starts with sophisticated technology to ensure that the materials collected will remain private and be there for generations to follow. Ponga was purpose-built for family history stories with…
- Facial organization features leverage that AI technologies to quickly and easily sort your photos by person.
- Authenticated web-based security that keeps prying eyes out of your stories, while making them accessible to loved ones.
- All images and added content preserved in their original standards-based formats. Your uploaded image files, of any size, remain accessible with their complete, original metadata. Comments are in text, voice recordings are accessible as downloadable audio files. Videos, Podcasts, and all kinds of other media can be embedded and linked. Their content remains in its original format, on the original site.
That’s a quick background on Ponga, you can learn more here. For now, let’s move on to see how Ponga lets you explore these stories of objects in small pieces as you tackle the larger narrative of your family history.
Shared stories and compounding interests
Once you start inviting siblings and cousins to join as your guests, you’ll be crowdsourcing facts and stories. Since they have their own family memories to add, you quickly discover how timelines overlapped and your stories carry nuances in the retelling. Small discoveries become wins and everyone has a good time — all while focusing on their shared connection.
The traditional way of handling family pictures hasn’t changed much in 150 years when albums were the only option. You would “organize” them by person, date, and maybe occasion. This factual information is important and can be vital to historical research. It’s also just the first step.
You might have had a wonderful aunt who dutifully wrote names and dates on photographs. Even if she captured the facts, she may not have had the whole story. In this example, we have a dated photo of a woman holding a baby. From the given year, we guessed who the baby was and concluded that this was the young mother.
Nope. Crowdsourcing with peers came up with a more interesting suggestion. A careful observer noticed that she was very young to have a toddler. Whoops! Another review of the family timeline, and we realized that she was probably the 17-year older big sister. Now that makes more sense. Why were they dressed up and where were they going?
Best Practices: Share Leads & Show Your Work
With selections, comments, and embedded media, Ponga creates a simple way to make notes while referencing original source material. The flexibility of the system gives you a lot of leeway in how you implement it. Here are a few best practices.
- Share your leads: Capture what you know AND how you know it. It’s okay to not be sure. As we’ve demonstrated, it’s also okay to be wrong. The key is to capture your sources and highlight what you’re unsure of.
- Ask specific questions: Your collaborators can better help you if they know what you’re looking for. Sharing what you do know helps you ask better questions.
- Reach your crowd anywhere: Since Ponga is digital, you can reach out to relatives and connections anywhere in the world, at any time, and in any language. Ponga works especially well over remote Zoom connections where everyone can see what you’re pointing at and add comments in real time.
- Show your work: Ponga’s powerful embedding tools mean most public media file types like PDF documents, YouTube videos, and Google presentations can be embedded directly into Ponga pictures. That’s an incredibly powerful way to share primary sources. Sharing how you gained access to the file can be helpful too.
To learn more about Ponga’s unique embedding features, see our post, 12 Kinds of Content You Can Add to a Ponga Picture. The post walks through procedures on each of 12 kinds of media from PDFs and videos to presentations and street view maps. The article includes examples from content in the leading library, family history, and museum sites around the world.
Example Artifacts to Add
This article started with the basic premise that artifacts are part of our personal histories. The sophisticated cameras included in today’s modern smartphones make it a cinch to take one or more photographs of artifacts like books and paperweights as easily as we scan photographic prints and slides.
We’ve shown you how easy it is to contextualize these materials into your family history story by literally making connections between the photographs in Ponga and the objects and materials about the objects.
Examples of the kinds of materials you can link to include:
- Scans of documents as image files or PDFs. These documents might validate births and graduations of family members or the authenticity and provenance of objects.
- Voice recordings as captured in voice notes taken during conversations or formal oral histories. (A range of services are available today for free or low cost for transcription including Otter.ai for voice recordings, or MilkVideo.com for video recordings.)
- Presentations as imported into Google Presentations or SlideShare.net are a terrific way to bring in older slide shows without compromising the integrity of the original material. Once your presentations are on these platforms, you just copy/paste the link into Ponga comments.
- Home Movies as accessible in any of a number of video formats. Once home movies are digitized and uploaded into online services, you can simply paste the links into Ponga. Examples include childhood moments, Oral histories with original source experts, and more.
Technique: Think Cloud, Think Ahead
When you start thinking about referencing documents, photographs, home movies, and other materials that aren’t in museums and libraries, however, you want to think ahead about how you’ll use it and you’ll probably want to consider cloud storage.
Think Cloud: You probably already use cloud storage to back up a mobile device (Apple iCloud), or perhaps to store materials you share in your private or professional life (Google, Dropbox, or Microsoft.) All of these services offer gigabytes worth of free storage from these services to get started.
Think Ahead: One strategy is to set up a designated account just for your shared family history research. By archiving documents there that you’ll link into Ponga, you create a sharable, purpose-built archive separate from your personal work. It makes it easy to add a collaborator or even pass along your research without compromising the privacy of your own business or personal files.
Pets are not objects, but beloved parts of families that have been carried forward in our photographs. This example from Ponga’s social media shows how a timeline of family pets was built from images stored in Google Drive. To bring the images into Ponga and display them in historical context, we simply had to copy a public link from within Google Drive. Copy, paste, done.
In this article, we’ve shown you the superpowers objects, artifacts — and photographs—have in conveying our family stories. Your family objects don’t have to be museum quality or of historic value to be important. The role they played in your can be the basis for the simple anecdotes that move your family narrative along. Talking about these stories can even help bring your extended family together.
You can get started telling your story right now.
Just look around and find an object you or a loved one cared about. Snap a picture with your phone. If you see details in the photo that would trigger a story, then you need to explore Ponga. Visit us at ponga.com and get started.
I’ll be speaking on this topic at the very special 2022 Genealogy Jamboree held virtually this year so anyone can join with a click. I hope to see you there and chat live. The recordings will be available to all registrants for 90 days after the event that starts in August 2022. Register for the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree here.