Modern Life

Photos, toys and tchotchkes: Why we keep the objects that matter most

Author and editor Bill Shapiro on why everyday items and photographs give our memories deeper meaning.

By Sunshine Flint — April 30, 2019

Editor and author Bill Shapiro is a chronicler of the human condition. His explorations into the things people hold dear speak to a common theme: Our very basic need for connection. From an ancient Greek drachma to a modern pregnancy test, he’s made a career out of investigating how everyday ephemera gives our lives more meaning and binds us to our pasts — and to each other.

Author Bill Shapiro.

Jon Holderer

Author Bill Shapiro.

Shapiro served as editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine from 2005 to 2008 and was the founding editor of from 2009 to 2012, where during his tenure over 2,000 photos a week crossed his desk. This work inspired his second act as an anthropologist of sorts, documenting the items from love letters to carving knives that people say they have the most emotional connection to. As the author of Other People’s Love Letters and co-author of What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning, he’s learned people love items that make them feel part of something larger than themselves. “When we hold these objects and feel these emotions, we feel deeply human,” he says.

Shapiro will be moderating a panel at the premiere of the Garage’s History of Memory short film series (winner of the Tribeca X Award) about the power of printed photography at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival on May 3. He’s set to guide a conversation with the filmmakers about the emotional stories they captured of people whose lives were changed forever by a single photograph.  “I feel like I have been cast for the part I was meant to play,” Shapiro says of the upcoming event. The Garage spoke to Shapiro at his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s an avid collector of vintage snapshots and memorabilia, about the deep meaning certain objects and printed photographs have for people.

Shapiro and co-author Naomi Wax's latest book was published in 2018.

Courtesy of Bill Shapiro

Shapiro and co-author Naomi Wax's latest book was published in 2018.

As you were interviewing people for What We Keep, what did you discover about memory and the power of meaningful objects?

We would ask, “What [object] has the most meaning in your life?” And they would rustle around and come back to the phone and say I’m holding it in my hand right now. They liked talking to us with it in their hand, touching it and getting sensation from it. If they think this got a crack when I fell off my bike or a chip here, it becomes a character in their life story instead of a grace note memory and it enlivens their memory. They talk about the moment they found it or it was given to them with such emotion. It transports them back to that time, and interestingly, it evokes the memory of how they felt then, but not the actual feeling.

Is memory stronger with the object? Or do they keep the object because the memory is so strong?

I think it’s both — and one feeds the other. Obviously if the event or moment wasn’t important, they wouldn’t keep it. But there’s no question that seeing it on your shelf or in the drawer reminds you of that moment in your life, the person who gave it to you, the crossroads that you were at. And that memory feeds into why that object is important to you and keeps it alive.

What we found is that people keep these objects because it speaks to this inner part of them that makes them who they really are. Most often, they got attached at a moment of transition or because someone important gave it to them, so it holds the core of their DNA, what they value. It’s who they are and it’s their north star.

Special objects collected by Shapiro and his family during their travels.

Courtesy of Bill Shapiro

Special objects collected by Shapiro and his family during their travels.

What is their value?

A lot of the people we interviewed told us that holding this object in their hands, feeling it's edges and weight, and knowing that their mother and grandmother had held this very same object, had felt those same edges and that same weight, was part of the experience, enhancing the memory and also adding another layer to the emotional connection. Nobody in this book chose an object that was of any monetary value at all.

Why do printed objects like photos and postcards mean so much?

A printed photograph is an object and we make literal space for it in our life. We put it on the wall or desk and it takes up metaphoric space in our brain and in our heart. You can show your kids, “here is your great grandmother.” I think there is something really special in photos of people because they are looking back at you and our brains are hardwired for eye contact. It’s that facial recognition and emotions and seeing that holds a lot of power.

At LIFE was there a photograph that you felt was iconic?

In thinking about a single photo from my time running LIFE, what comes to mind is one that shows the brother of the man who owned the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. As much as I love photos that tell the entire story in a single frame, I also love those whose meaning becomes clear with a little context. The picture, taken in the hours after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the motel on April 4, 1968, shows the brother on his knees on the balcony brushing Dr. King's blood into a glass jar. LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky was one of the first on the scene. It's a heartbreaking image. Of course, just by looking at the picture, you'd have no idea whatsoever what was going on or what the cultural/historical significance of the moment was.

The other amazing thing about this photo is that I was the first person to see it in about 40 years. At the time, the editors at LIFE decided these photos were too inflammatory, too gruesome to run. And so the pictures sat in the LIFE archive, untouched and unseen, for decades. In 2009, my team unearthed them. We couldn't believe what we'd found. So, for me, that photo captures one of the most hateful moments in American history, but also a sense of the hidden history of pictures and the euphoria of discovery and the responsibility we all have to look backward.

Henry Cunningham

Shapiro sorting through his collection of hundreds of vintage photos, each one a mystery found at a flea market or yard sale.

What is your “one” object?

A handwritten sign that says “Anywhere” in German from when I was hitchhiking in East Germany in 1985.  I hold onto that because of the sense that I could have gone anywhere, it didn’t matter the route or when. It was wide open. Then you get married and mortgages and kids, and this brings me back to a time before things narrowed.

What is your “one” photograph?

On my phone I have 36,000 images, but on my walls I have a dozen of my kids and lots of photo albums. But there’s one photo of my kids that captures their individual personalities. They are sitting on a bench in Central Park and eating ice cream on a sunny day with so much joy on their faces. It’s on the way to the kitchen and I look at it five times a day. My son is now 20 and my daughter is 17, and they were six and three years old in this photo, eating [cartoon characters] Dora and SpongeBob popsicles. It’s that distilled joy of childhood.


Watch: History of Memory, a film series dedicated to the power of printed photographs.