How to Build a Nourishing, Sustainable Photo Journal

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

Do you have a photo journal system in place that you love?

I’ve been a mom for three years, and I haven't made a yearly album yet – a BIG admission for a photographer. I've also tried and failed at several journaling methodologies: : Day One. Qeepsake, Blogs, Journals. You get the point.

A family story that I can look back on is important.

One of the favorite things about visiting my family in Wisconsin every year is paging through the collection of photos at my grandma's house. I head to the upstairs bedroom where I find shelf after shelf of photo albums, organized roughly by decade, person or event.

My grandparents spent decades filling these albums with printed 4x6 photos. Those keepsakes didn't happen overnight. My grandma and grandpa developed a system that worked for them, which in turn inspired me to create a sustainable, nourishing way of recording my own family journal and yearly photo album simultaneously.

The recipe? Making hand-written notes on 4x6 prints which combine to create an intimate, detailed timeline of your life. And because this physical act of creation is nourishing, it’s more likely to become a habit. Seventy years from now, you’ll have a rich set of photo journals on your own shelf.

1. Take Intentional Pictures

Before digital, most of us couldn't take 100s of photos per week. The cost of film and development meant paying cold hard cash for each shot.

I curl up in a ball just thinking of going through 1000's of cellphone pictures to select a handful that represent the year. The task overwhelms me, so I don't do it.

Digital noise is real. We may only need a single photo to bring back memories of an event or day. Decrease your digital noise by clicking the shutter button fewer times, with more intention.

If you're like "Um, no Cass. I absolutely can't resist the urge to take 500 pictures of my baby eating mashed banana", and I feel you, then create a habit of culling your photos daily. Or favorite the shots you want to put into an album someday.

Or, get a film camera!

You only have 35 exposures per roll, which forces you to be more selective about what you capture.

When I get a roll back, I have 35 pictures that tell the story of several days over a few weeks.

Film photography also makes it super easy to get prints. Most companies send prints with your developed film, one of the reasons I think photo albums were more common in the days before digital.

2. Order 4x6 Prints of Your Faves

In the digital era, we don't need prints to see our pictures like we did with film.

But, I urge you, print your photos! This is the secret sauce to a nourishing, sustainable photo journal. More on that in #4.

You may ask, how do I print my photos?

With film, it's easy. We send our film to be developed and check "yes" send my 4x6 prints of my images.

With digital, it might be even easier. I recently discovered Shutterfly, an app that connects to your cell phone photo album. They have an ongoing free 4x6 print promo. You only pay for shipping.

It's easy to order with Shutterfly, but the print quality is sub par. Only go this route if it's for convenience, or if you don't mind the quality.

Do this every couple of months, or whenever you find yourself running low on prints.

3. Keep Your Naked Prints Around the House

Then make sure everyone who wants to contribute to the album knows where they are.

I just started to store my prints using beautiful, hand made 4x6 print boxes from Michael Chinn, a local bindery in SF.

4. Write Simple Notes On The Back

This is the part I LOVE.

This is the part that GIVES ME SANITY: knowing that my photos and journal are in the same place.

Throughout the week, when inspiration strikes, jot down your note. A silly phrase. A memorable event. Something that made you giggle. Or huge milestones.

Or, as you see below, a description of what 15 minutes looks like with a physical toddler.

  • bites tip off highlighter

  • eats crayon

  • plays with knobs on stove "hot"

  • pulls all Kleenex out of box, throws on floor

  • opens dryer so blanket stops drying

  • drops full metal water bottle on himself

There are several benefits to pairing prints and notes.

They record memories a photo may not be able to preserve like first words or events that are harder to document.

Prints become a canvas for your kids artwork. Every few weeks I"ll hand a 4x6 print to my daughter, the artist, to draw on. I can see the progression of her family portraits or how she draws her name.

Prints date your notes for you. Since your note is on a relatively recent picture, the image dates it for you. My mom brain appreciates this part.

Read here for tips for what kind of pens/markers. Lumocolor Permanent Markers have worked well for me.

5. Put The Annotated Photos Into An Album

The album should be a three-ring binder with clear photo pages so you can see the writing on the back of the photo.

I recommend durable pages that wouldn't end up in the landfill, and an album that you love.

I found everything I needed on Jennie Bick Journals. A handmade 3-ring leather album and archival quality polypropylens pages.

The pages linked above are an extra win because they accommodate both horizontal and vertical pictures.

Here's my 2019 The Doyle Family Album.

There you have it: the nourishing, sustainable way to build a memory-filled family photo journal.

I truly believe that this approach is a good one, and I think the reason I'm so for it is because it doesn't involve much screen time.

It's a hands-on activity which I can say, after polling my network, is known to be:

Thoughtful, appreciated, creative, deliberate. intentional. authentic. genuine, sensitive, expressive, invested, accomplished, rewarding, gratifying, empowering, agency, personal and intimate, and finally: nourishing.

I'm excited to hear your thoughts. As I write this, I feel like most people that made albums before the digital breakthrough would be, like, DUH.

But... we learn from history. This timeless and time-tested approach works for me and might work for you!

Are you giving this method a shot? How's it going for you? I'd love to hear in comments.

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