STYLE

Canadian web phenomenon Dear Photograph brings heartfelt words, images to print

05/01/2012 12:58 EDT | Updated 07/01/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - The instructions are simple: Hold up an old photo in front of the place where it was originally shot, take a picture of the picture, then write a dedication about what the photo means to you.

Since the launch of DearPhotograph.com last year, an idea sparked by a snapshot in Kitchener, Ont., has ignited a global phenomenon, setting off a flurry of camera shutters and unleashing a flood of memories among thousands who've embraced the nostalgic concept.

In "Dear Photograph" (Collins), due out on May 8, site creator Taylor Jones has translated the popular premise behind the virtual album of poignant portraits to print.

Jones said he wanted to have about 140 new submissions for the book. "Dear Photograph" also features about 60 photos previously posted on his site.

The idea for the site was born last May when Jones was at home poring through a photo album with family and saw a snapshot of his brother Landon at age 3. As they looked at the photo, Jones noticed that Landon — now in his teens — was sitting at the same table and in the same chair as he was in the picture.

He held up the photo of his beaming brother sitting in front of his Winnie the Pooh cake juxtaposed against the modern-day backdrop and snapped.

After uploading the image to a Tumblr blog, Taylor Jones had to fill in a caption, leading him to wonder what Landon would say to the younger version of himself. He opened with the salutation "Dear Photograph," and wrote: "I wish I had as much swag now as did then. Landon Jones."

Jones shared this image and additional ones with friends, and created a Twitter feed and Facebook page. The number of hits quickly skyrocketed.

Pickup by sites like Mashable and Reddit helped further propel rapid-fire spread of the concept online. Dear Photograph also landed on Time Magazine's list of the 50 best websites of 2011.

"Pretty much after a few days, I knew it was something pretty special," said the affable Jones in an interview. "I didn't know it would get to this magnitude. It's been crazy to think all of this happened so soon."

With the book slated for release, there are still further possibilities to expand on the Dear Photograph concept.

The Conestoga College graduate said he's been approached by companies wanting to incorporate the premise into advertising. A friend has also penned a script based on the idea that they plan to shop around for a possible film, he added.

There is a connective thread between the seemingly disparate images online and in print: heartfelt words accompanying the photos that often reveal a deeper meaning beyond what's visible within the frame.

Jones flips through the pages of the book and stops on an image. A hand is holding a snapshot of a blond boy captured in mid-stride running on a roadway, his head turned to the left.

The caption reveals the moment of triumph: the boy is Kasey and he won his division in the school's five-kilometre race — running in his sandals.

Then, tragedy.

"As he ran by, looking over at the cemetery, who would've known that one short year later he would be buried there?" the caption continues. "It has been twelve years since Kasey died in the fire, and I miss him so much. I wonder what kind of man he would be today at twenty-four years old.

"Life can be so very fragile. Make the moments count. Kris."

Amid the heart-wrenching captions in tribute to late loved ones, the book also features its share of humorous and light-hearted passages linked to warm memories of friends and family, from group hugs and graduations to weddings and walks on the beach.

While he has pored through the photos and read the captions in the book hundreds of times, Jones said in each fresh glance he still sees something new in the portraits linking past and present.

He flips to a photo of a hand holding aloft a picture of the Twin Towers in the same place where the gleaming structures once stood within the Manhattan skyline.

The date stamp of the original image was 9-10-01 —one day before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It kind of just gave me goosebumps," Jones said, as he pauses on the image.

The 22-year-old said he recognized soon after launching the site that it was striking a deeply personal chord with both posters and visitors.

"It's a mix of nostalgia and also the emotional connection that humans have with each other," he said.

"People can comment below the photos and they'll be like, 'Oh my God, this same thing happened to my dad,' ... or 'My mom passed away and I know exactly how you feel,' and the submitter sees that on the website," he added.

"It's really cool to see the emotion come out — and to see people feel it."

MORE:cpStyle