We Are Not Merely Photographers, We Are Historians As Well

Photographers don’t merely create images; we document the world around us, which makes us historians.

Lawrence Lazare
Live View
10 min readOct 24, 2023


My Grandparents, Freida and Sigmund Lazare - taken in Paris circa 1935

Of all the thousands of family photos I have in my collection, none is more important to me than the small photo booth image of my grandparents taken in Paris in the mid-1930s. In the photo, my Grandmother Freida, wearing a bright smile, looks over her shoulder at my Grandfather Sigmund. My grandfather, in turn, looks back adoringly at his beloved wife. The image radiates a happiness I had never seen on their faces in the 29 years I had known them.

This photo booth image of my Jewish grandparents, my beloved Grandmère and Grandpère, was taken when their life was full of possibility. They had no idea of the horrors that lay just ahead. In 1940 the Nazis would invade France and later seize my grandparent’s beautiful home in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, just outside of Paris. Late one night in June of 1941, my grandparents, father, and aunt escaped France with only the clothes on their backs. They somehow made it to Bilbao, where they boarded a boat that would take them to the United States. With the exception of an Uncle, they would be the only family members to survive the holocaust.

That one tiny photo of Frieda and Sigmund Lazare speaks volumes about a family history that would, 25 years later, become my own history. Because of what my grandparents endured, I have always been aware of how quickly life can change.

Becoming A Historian

A photographer since I was a teen, I have always held on to the idea that I was not only making photographs but creating historical artifacts as well. Whether we shoot landscapes, urban photography, portraits, weddings, or family events, As photographers, we capture images that will someday become part of history in some small way. Whether we mean to or not, as photographers, we become historians as well.

Below are some thoughts on the ways that our image catalog can be transformed from a mere collection of images into a treasure trove of historical value.

Capturing the B-Roll of Everyday Life

When documentary filmmakers want to establish place and time, they usually use archive footage as B-roll. Often, that B-roll footage shows the most ordinary aspects of life: cars driving down a suburban street, children playing in their yards, or pedestrians walking the crowded streets of a bustling city. The B-roll establishes a time period via the basics of everyday life.

That archival footage is compelling for filmmaking because it establishes a timeline with visuals many of us can relate to. “Wow, remember how big cars were then? My neighborhood looked just like that!” we think to ourselves. Footage of Woodstock or the 1968 Democratic Convention — that was what was on the news. But that shot of the car driving down the suburban street allows us to merge the visuals in the film with our own memories.

I was raised in the river town of Croton-on-Hudson, NY, an hour North of Manhattan along the Hudson River. There wasn’t much to do in our tiny little village, but those of us who grew up there bonded with nature instead. Hilly, wooded, and bordered on three sides by rivers and reservoirs, Croton was an idyllic place to grow up. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone, and all of us kids had played together since kindergarten.

Many of us who grew up in Croton have a deep attachment to the town, and there are several Facebook groups where we share images, memories, and news. I often post both old and new photos in the FB groups, and recently, I posted a B&W of my old neighborhood in one of the groups. Taken in 1981, it’s a simple photo of the entrance to the playground I grew up playing in, with my childhood home in the background.

Tiny Tots playground, Croton-on-Hudson, NY, circa 1981 / On the Croton Harmon High School lawn, circa 1978

Thinking it was a throwaway post of an old photograph, I was amazed to see the large amount of attention and comments it generated. My fellow Crotonites shared their stories of playing in that playground in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Some commented on the old-fashioned pump swings that can no longer be found, and others posted about the fast metal slide, smoothed by decades of use and hot enough to burn you in mid-summer. Most of the commenters shared stories of growing up in our lovely river town and what it was like there back when we were young.

Truth be told, the photo I posted is not particularly good. It has too much fence in the foreground, and the playground equipment is hard to see. But what made the image special was the fact that most folks who looked at the image had never seen a photo of what that playground looked like back in the day. In the analog era, you didn’t waste exposures lightly, and photographing an empty playground was not something most people would have thought to do. But even at age 21, I somehow sensed that one day, someone might enjoy seeing a record of what life looked like at the little playground many of us played in when we were just kids.

Another image I shared via Facebook was a snapshot of my friends sitting on the front lawn of our high school back in 1978. With my friends talking on the lawn with an orange VW Van in the background, the image is a window into our lives as high schoolers back in the late 70’s. Again, this is technically not a great image, but posting it led to hundreds of likes and dozens of comments, spurring a long and thorough conversation about what life at Croton Harmon High School was like back in the day. Had I left the image in a shoebox, none of that FB conversation would have occurred.

Documenting the Before/After and Now/Then

I moved from New York to the Florida Panhandle five years ago when my wife and I purchased a home in Pensacola, Florida, where she had gotten a job as a professor. Although we knew the house needed work, little did we know that we would be spending the next five years, along with lots of money, rehabbing and rebuilding much of the house.

While in NY, we searched online for houses in Pensacola that were in our price range. One day, my wife came upon a mid-century modern brick ranch with a substantial dilapidated outbuilding in the backyard. The outbuilding had a single garage door surrounded by two open-sided bays where the previous owner had stored an RV and his boat. My reaction to seeing the outbuilding was, “Next!” The reaction from my wife, a sculptor, was a joyful “That’s my new studio!!”

My wife’s studio before, during, and after construction 2018–19

Where I saw only decay, my wife saw a 1,400 sq ft dream studio. Over the next nine months, we proceeded to strip the building down to the studs and transform it into the dream studio my wife had pictured when she first saw that Zillow photo of that horrendous outbuilding that had kept other buyers from purchasing the house.

As a visual historian, I documented every aspect of the construction, and now we have a complete pictorial record of the before, during, and after. In addition to capturing the studio rebuild, I also documented the ongoing changes as we transformed our backyard’ into a mini fruit and vegetable farm, with many raised beds, fruit trees, and berries we planted during the lengthy lockdown.

Because I have been documenting the world around me for 45 years now, I also have images of the homes and yards of my closest friends. I recently visited with one of my closest friends, Robin, who lives in a house he built 45 years ago in the mountains of North Carolina. During the visit, I looked through my Lightroom catalog and pulled out a photo of their yard 40 years ago. In that time, new buildings had appeared, and full-grown trees stood where once there was grass. That photo I took 40 years before might have once been a throwaway image of a yard, but now it was a document of what their land had looked like in the past.

The Big Life Events

Twenty years ago, the father of my friend Robin passed away, and his ashes were buried in the family plot on their land in the mountains of North Carolina. Before the ceremony, Robin handed me his Nikon 35mm camera and asked me to photograph the burial. Quitely and unobtrusively, I documented the ceremony.

Since then, whenever I attended a significant life event like a memorial service or a burial, I have diplomatically asked my friends whether they wanted me to (discreetly) photograph the ceremony, and every one of them has said yes. In all those cases, days after the ceremony, I reminded my friends that I had photographs that I would share when or if they were ready.

John and Lael’s Wedding, 2021

Unlike the challenge of photographing a painful event, photographing a wedding as a guest allows you to experience a joyful occasion and capture the wedding from a different perspective than the wedding photographer does. Where the wedding photographer has a job to do and a shot list to fulfill, as a guest who is also a photographer, you are there to capture your perspective of a joyous occasion.

While the official wedding photographer is usually there for the actual wedding day, as a photographer guest, you can also capture the pre and post-wedding events, such as the rehearsal dinner or any event that occurs the day after the wedding.

Far too often, I have heard the phrase, “With a camera in their pocket, now everyone is a photographer.” While that might technically be true, while most of the attendees of the wedding might have their cameras in their pockets, mine is out and is being used discreetly as I capture the wedding events with the knowledge that I will be sharing the images I take with the bride and groom. Yes, most of the rehearsal dinner attendees have a camera in their pockets, but I’m the one who’s making sure I capture any speeches that occur, as I ensure I have coverage of all the guests who attend the dinner.

From Shoebox to Shared

Most of our friends and family have piles of old photos, sleeves of negatives, and boxes of slides piled into boxes that sit buried in the closet or the attic. Likely, those photos, negatives, and slides are unlabeled, undated, and almost certainly ignored. As photographers, we treasure our photo prints and negatives. Probably, we have combed through our boxes of photos and sleeves of negatives and separated the important ones from the less important ones.

As a photographer, it is also likely that you have gone through multiple rounds of scanning those old prints, negatives, and slides as you brought them into the 21st century. If you haven’t done so yet, I’m pretty sure it’s on your to-do list. It’s that cataloging process — sorting, scanning, and tagging- that transforms us from mere photographers into photo historians. Last, but not least, as photo historians, we take the time and energy to share those images with others.

This last part - the sharing — that is the most important part for us photographer historians. We sit on a treasure trove of images that, if shared, can impact others in a profound way. Other family members will be taking and sharing the smiling shots of birthday parties and holiday celebrations. As photographers though, we will be the ones to capture the profundity of a family member holding a loved one's hands as they near the end of their life. But taking the image is not enough; we need to make sure we share them.

With our catalog of curated, dated, and tagged images, we send them into the world so that others can see and appreciate them. We share them with family members via albums, prints, or an image shared electronically. We share them with folks we grew up with or with co-workers via social networks.

Most importantly, though, when someone in our circle of friends and family passes, we share our images of those who have passed with their loved ones. That is why we document the world around us, so we can pass along our images to others when those photos are needed most.

A number of years ago, I had enlargements made of that photo booth image of my Grandmère and Grandpère. I framed the images and sent them to all the grandchildren. As much as I loved having that image, I loved it even more, knowing that all of Freida and Signmund’s grandchildren would have their own copies of that joyous photo to hang on their walls.

That image of my grandparents was not shared with me; my brother and I found it in a box of their possessions only after they died. I keep thinking, what if I had come across that image while my Grandmère and Grandpère were alive? I think of the conversations it might have stirred. Perhaps it might have spurred me to ask them about their courtship, a subject I never asked them about. But what I know is this — buried in a box, that image was lost. In unearthing it, it became alive again. As photographers, we have the ability to breathe new life into images and to create joy by sending them out into the world.

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Lawrence Lazare
Live View

Legally blind photographer and former e-commerce product management lead. Now working on a BFA in Studio Art at the University of West Florida. IG:@llazare