Ideas & Inspirations



Reading the Old Family Album

Artist Elizabeth Thomas dwells into the past as she digs out old family photos that lie forgotten stacked away for years. Reading old photographs is a stimulating experience invoking nostalgia, pleasure and even sorrow as we look at the time gone by. There is a sense of history one experiences that is beyond personal memories that make us realize the transforming social conditions and the impermanence of things. For Elizabeth, sifting through the crackling, somewhat bent and forgotten family photos in various stages of disrepair is a calming, stilling experience. She shares with us a glimpse of her precious memories.


Opening the old family albums invokes many senses as I slowly flip through the old black pages, with the old four gummed photo holders at the edges. Just one word cannot fully describe it. Nostalgia, joy, heartache, amazement, questioning are some of the sentiments that flood through my senses.

Seeing old baby photographs – the way you used to pucker up your face when your brother fought with you, or a baby’s cherubic expression as she slept, makes me wonder if this is the same person who’s now in her mid sixties?

As I look at the lovely old objects in the photographs- the old painting or clock that was the family heirloom proudly displayed, mom and her friend gracefully draped in saris while Dad has his beaming smile on. In another photo I see mom’s eyes, her printed blouse and plain sari with the brooch that held the pallu in place.

I also notice the old hairstyles. Two tight plaits for school, (nearly all the girls had long hair) buns decorated with fresh flowers, or a simple hairdo for a wedding and elegantly simple wedding sari. There were no bridal makeup and hairdo to beauty parlours then.

An image etched in my mind is a photo of my two sisters and Dad, taken in front of the house they lived in – what used to be Lawrence Square in New Delhi. The younger sister, about 2 years old is held in Dad’s arms. Both the girls’ gazes are fixed on something to their right. It must have been definitely more attention- worthy than the photographer, who remains a mystery. The girls are wearing identical dresses made by mom, who would stitch on her pedal sewing machine, after coming home from work or on weekends or when she wasn’t cooking. No branded kiddies clothes are screaming for attention here.

There’s an old photo of my grandmother as she bent over the wood fire in her kitchen. She was blowing at the embers trying to get the fire to burn brighter, and suddenly the flame rose as the camera clicked. She continued stirring the dinner cooking in a smoke-darkened old pot, with the small heap of dried coconut leaves on the floor for tinder. I still remember the warm smells of her kitchen as she would tell us stories there while she hobbled and picked up some pan or sat on a small wooden stool in the storeroom cutting ripe jackfruit. She didn’t ever complain about no electricity, (there were only oil lamps in the house then) or that the maid had taken a holiday.

This hand-held picture, shot by the wood firelight, even though a bit blurry, is a favourite.

Through these old photos I see our changed lives, how some of the old values we were brought up with have modified somewhat, but what I’m most pleased and thankful for is that someone had photographed those moments.  If you think its not a good idea to look back on your life, I beg to differ. Those moments of history are part of who you are now, and looking back can bring you some smiles.

About the author: Elizabeth Thomas is a designer and reflexologist, living in Goa. 


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  • Itching to go through my family album after reading this! The piece also powerfully brought home the fact that we are all stories that are still unfolding, and how important it is to visit the Once Upon A Time space every few years. Thanks for this evocative piece, Lisa.

  • Vishal

    The surplus of ‘snaps’ and ‘selfies’ we take today can never compare with the ‘photographs’ of yore taken on occasions that were special or made special because they were photographed. Also the sheer materiality of these physical prints, frames and albums and their deteriorating quality contain ‘Time’ in a more real way than digital data ever can.

    • Newvision

      Well said Vishal. Your point about the materiality of physical prints and albums is very true.

  • RB

    Utterly charming feature! Lovingly and skilfully taken shots of those beautiful, evocative old photos. This photo-oriented journal is very appealing, will be checking it out regularly. And more from this author/photographer, please!

  • Poonam

    “To watch my father scanning the newspaper and trying, with half a smile, to catch the tail of a joke rippling across the crowded room, and at that very same moment to see a picture of him at five years old – my age – with hair as long as a girl’s, it seemed plain to me that my grand mother had framed and frozen these memories so that we could weave them into the present”.
    Orhan Pamuk
    Memories and the city

  • Meena

    Lovely piece!

  • Shriparna

    Love the piece Liza. Thanks for sharing such beautiful photos. Just the way the paper cracks, tears and yellows make them so romantic. And now we have filters for pretty much the same thing. We humans keep going round in the same circles don’t we.

  • Joseph

    lovely. Thank you mama

  • Manik

    Nice album Liz 🙂 xx

  • sasanka perera

    Interesting essay. When was this published? Cant find a date in the text?

  • Manoj Mathew

    Amazing! The picture of your Grandmother cooking over the stove … is that your mother’s mother – Kurianoor Ammachi? If so I am so excited as that is my Great-Grandmother – I am Molly’s son from Edmonton, Canada. I share your love for old pictures. We have many from my dad’s side of the family, but very few from Mom’s side …. that picture right there has made my year!

  • Manoj Mathew

    I feel I should add that all the other pictures are great to see … those of us here in Canada have very fond memories of “Delhi Appachen” during his trip here and the times we visited Delhi. I have spent a lot of time scanning and cleaning up the old pictures my dad brought over from India and therefore really appreciate what you have shared. Being born and raised in North America, I can only hope my kids will one day appreciate how valuable these images are, and rest assured I will be showing them these pictures. Thanks again!

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