Heirlooms are important to many of us in different ways. They connect us to our own past and to the lives of those who came before us. StoryKeep, founded by Lisa Madison and Jamie Yuenger, is in the business of assembling future heirlooms, multimedia portraits that offer a glimpse into the past or a chance to preserve a special moment in the here-and-now. We spoke with Lisa and Jamie to learn more about their work and inspirations.
The Recollective: In your bios on the StoryKeep website, you both describe life experiences that seem deeply rooted in family and ritual. What are some ways in which your own memories of family influence the way you document the stories of families with whom you work?
Jamie: Wow. This is a big question! Well…my memories of my own family are both vivid and blurry. I know that when I’m interviewing people, that’s usually the case for them too. Some things stick out in their minds and some things, for whatever reason, fade. I’m always looking for the little and big stories that a person can vividly recall, but equally as important, their stories that point to a bigger truth. My own family experienced wonderful times, but also dreadful times. I get the joy, I get the underbelly. I try to bring that understanding to my listening and my questions.
Lisa: My understanding of stories started very young, when I heard my parents tell the story of starting the vineyard in New Mexico where I grew up over and over again to customers who stopped by the tasting room. It’s not like I’ve had a penchant for recording family stories my entire life though – in fact, it wasn’t until recently that I started to truly record my own family stories. I don’t actually think it’s the memories of family that influence my desire to document stories; it’s the recognition that stories are being made every day and our future memories if we capture those stories.
The Recollective: It seems like you both had a clear idea of what you wanted StoryKeep to be when you started up, but what have you found most surprising about your work?
Jamie: The most surprising thing, that nobody told me, is that your relationship with your business partner is more critical to your business success than everything else combined. You must establish an unshakable trust, a bond, that will survive hell and highwater. It is a self-actualizing process to realize that the more vulnerable you are with your business partner, the stronger you make your business.
Lisa: I absolutely agree with Jamie on this one. I would also add that I could have never imagined how incredibly satisfying it is to do this work. The pleasure that we bring families drives us every day.
The Recollective: Can you describe some of the more challenging requests you’ve gotten from clients?
Jamie: We were asked to document a family’s seder. It was an incredible experience, but it required me to interview 21 people within a 4 hour time span, this while Lisa shot b-roll of the dinner prep. The dining room where the two of us shot the dinner was just big enough to hold the dinner attendees, so we scrunched and slid past folks to get meaningful shots.
Lisa: The most challenging projects are those that are started too late. Either a storyteller’s memory or grip on reality is slipping or, even worse, they pass before they’re able to tell their whole story.
The Recollective: Even though you use digital technology to record stories, it appears that you believe in the power of objects to help tell stories or convey an experience. Can you describe why that marriage of the two is important to you?
Lisa: I actually have a secret desire to put all of our work on records and film just so they can be a little more of a physical object in the world. The digital technologies that are available to us today help us capture stories and certainly make this process easier for anyone that takes the initiative to pull out their phone, but it’s a catch-22 because it also renders these moments a little more impermanent. The power of objects is that the stories embedded within them cannot be erased with a click of a button or the crash of a hard drive. They withstand the test of time.
The Recollective: Our culture feels increasingly materialistic and at the same time it seems to value heirlooms and memorabilia less and less. I’m wondering to what degree StoryKeep is a response to or rejection of that trend. Can you share your thoughts on the importance of tangible objects and materials and their role in connecting the past to the present?
Jamie: I’m not sure that I agree that our culture values heirlooms less and less, but I’ll say this; I think material objects are important because we can touch them. There is something in touching a ring, or a clock, or a StoryKeep album that is very much like touching the actual person you loved (and who you miss). We touched that person when they were alive and so to touch something that represents them is a similar act.
Lisa: I think that we feel like our world is moving too fast – materialism aside, the changes that our grandparents have experienced in the last 10 years far exceeds those of the 40 before it, especially in technology. I think that the nostalgic trend in our culture that values heirlooms and memorabilia is a reaction to this. It’s holding onto something that we can all relate to.