You take a picture of your mother on her 60th birthday, the family eating Thanksgiving dinner, the children in the bathtub or the "we-were-here-on-vacation" group photo. You have them developed, stick them to the pages of the family album, look at them when you move, and pride yourself on what a nice job you've done for posterity.
But while family photos may be the first thing to be rescued during a fire, they may be the last place people look for a closer understanding of family relationships.
"People accept photographs at face value," says Richmond, Va., family therapist Alan Entin. "Their initial reaction to the picture is just to the image: 'That's nice, it really looks like me,' or 'It looks like your son,' or 'That's a nice picture of us, thank you.' "
No matter how staged or how casual, family photo albums have stories to tell.
"The kind of relationship that shows up in a photo is the same one that shows up in a person-to-person relationship," says Entin, 45, who, for the past seven years, has used the concept of Bowen Family Systems to develop "a visual language for emotional relationships."
(Bowen Family Systems, developed by Murray Bowen at Georgetown University more than 20 years ago, is based on the idea that psychological health depends on forming your own sense of self while still remaining in contact with the family of origin.)
Entin, who calls family photos "icons of the family reflecting the collective past" and "symbols of attachment and connectedness to the traditions and ideals of the family," has questions to ask:
"How are the people grouped? Who is touching/close to whom? Is one person always in the center? Is one person always off to the side? What position are the children in? Is the oldest/middle/youngest always in the 'favored' position between the parents?"
One successful woman executive was able to observe photographically the distance she always had felt with her father, and which was being repeated with her husband. When she viewed a series of her growing-up pictures, she noticed that the pose always was the same -- her mother held her, her brother stood close by, while her father, in a three-piece suit with his hands in his pockets, stood physically isolated.
Although Entin says that the goal of "most approaches" using photographs in psychotherapy is "reliving and reexperiencing the feelings and memories in a cathartic manner," he does "not think it is necessary to see and discuss family photographs especially for the purpose of expressing feelings."
In contrast, his photo goal is to help people "maintain contact with their family of origin."
Entin thinks "emotional problems can best be understood by placing them in the context of a "three-generational emotional process." The extended family, he says, is a prime resource "in the resolution of conflicts and stress within the nuclear family."
In Entin's own photo album, he noticed three pictures of the grandmother and granddaughter, and only one with the grandson. In all photos, the grandmother is hugging and kissing the granddaughter, but posed, formal and stiff with the grandson. The grandson, in the only serious picture of him in the entire album, seems unresponsive.
When pointed out to the grandmother, "She asked, 'Does that mean I love your daughter more than I love your son?' "
No, says Entin, "The pictures really highlight the different relationships each child has with the grandmother."
Historian of his own family's "visual archives," Entin says people need to find out about the origins of family "mythologies, labels and rules," and how the family "got to be programmed through the generations."
It's easier to talk about pictures, says Entin, even of the individuals involved, because "while it is a picture of them, it is not them. Thus, each viewer can get enough distance and objectivity to observe and talk about self."
One young woman patient, at Entin's request to see photos, brought her twin brothers' photo album. In the informal family shots, as well as the studio pictures, she noticed that she was always standing, sitting next to and touching the same brother.
Her father seemed to favor the other brother, evidenced by the fact that whenever there was a picture of a single child, it was always the other brother, whom she was not close to. Although the father was unaware of his partiality and vehemently denied it, Entin said viewing the pictures helped the daughter "in the understanding of the family dynamics."
Since families usually take pictures during good times -- births, birthday parties, weddings, holidays, vacations and family reunions -- is the family album, then, a series of "fairy tales," a form of "folklore," "and artifact of family life," as some therapists have argued?
"It does communicate how families are different and alike and how they respond in a variety of ways to similar cultural and life-cycle experiences," says Entin.
"Pictures have a purpose," he notes, often intending to "portray a certain image. A family photo may conceal as well as reveal, but it also reveals the process the family's going through, which is 'Let's cover up our misery.' "
The "perfect family" photos, for example, of one immigrant family were a "fantasy, portraying the world as perfect -- pictures of Christmas and going to church all dressed up."
The purpose of the photos was clear: They were sent back to the old country in Europe with the message, "Look how great life is here in America," when in fact, the family was going through great emotional turmoil, and the father was unemployed and depressed.
Another "perfect family album" was assembled by a terminally ill woman as a present to her young daughter. The mother seemed to be saying through the photos, says Entin, "Look what a nice job I did as a mother," with pictures of a well-groomed, well-mannered daughter, of "what a little girl should be."
But what the daughter noticed was the lack of photos of the mother and daughter together. In two pictures, 20 years apart, of the entire family, the mother was looking at her brother.
The daughter, according to Entin, "affirmed how the album really did reflect her difficult distant relationship with her mother."
Entin warns about overgeneralizing, emphasizing that one photo may "reflect only the mood of the moment." Pictures over time should be studied for patterns.
He also emphasizes that his theory is a "guide to think about the photographs; there are no direct translations."
Does space between family members, for example, mean distancing, or is this a picture of a flexible family system which permits individuality? We can only speculate, says Entin. "It may depend on the point of view of the family member looking at and interpreting the pictures."
Wedding pictures -- "generally corny and staged," says Entin, "but nonetheless revealing" -- turned out to be predictive of future marital problems in one couple in their late twenties, married a year:
On the bottom step of the approach to the honeymoon bedroom, they smile gaily and eagerly, but as they near the room, "the relationship pattern emerged immediately: she wants closeness and intimacy and he is distancing and pulling away from her."
This pattern persisted in their relationship and culminated in divorce.
(In the man's memory, says Entin, "there is a picture of him pulling her up the stairs, with her resisting. That picture, if it exists, however, is not included in the "official wedding album.")
Interpreting photos, says Entin, is secondary to his overall goal as a family therapist, "which is to help people understand themselves."
One female client, only a short time after her initial visit to Entin, and unaware of his "photophilia," asked if he wanted to see some pictures.
Entin, elated "that the client unknowingly brought in information relevant to my interests," quickly assented.
The woman handed over several photos: a tie on a dresser, evidence of her husband's sloppy habits, a black sheet hung over the window for the last 25 years to keep the room dark since her husband works at night, and kitchen cabinets in need of repair.
"She wanted to convince me that her husband was all the nasty things she said and she had pictures to prove it."