Why It's Important to Document Your Life | Photo Essay

Flying to Italy with 98 family members for the most unforgettable trip, captured on film and video.

I think we can all relate to the feeling of using our cameras as work tools so much that we forget why we fell in love with the art of photography in the first place. Any time I hit that point – when I feel burned out, creatively exhausted, or just don’t want to touch a camera – I think of my mom.

Growing up, it was an unspoken tradition for our little family of five to open up all of our photo books a few times a year to spend hours reminiscing over old memories. My mom was the documentarian in our family; the one who took most of the photos in those books, and the one who inspired me to buy my first camera in middle school. It was that spirit of preserving family memories that made me fall in love with photography, and it was that same spirit that I embodied when our family of 98 people flew to Italy together for a 10-day trip.

Yep, we’re all related.

The documentary I filmed about this trip (linked above) dives deep and explains a lot of the context of the trip at large. If you haven’t watched that already, please do! It’ll help lay the foundation for the stories and images ahead.

Side Note: I spent a lot of time in pre-production for this trip because I knew how important it would be for my family. Shotlists, writings, gear lists, musings – I collected all of my thoughts in Notion as the weeks ticked down to the day of our departure. This was the key to my success of documenting the trip, because each day was exhausting; if not for my planning, I would not have documented everything how it deserved to be preserved.

Milan – March 17, 2023

We started the trip in Milan, Italy, after about 23 hours of travel from Chicago rife with canceled flights and delays. We didn’t spend much time in Milan because of our late arrival, but I won’t forget the moment we all had breakfast together at the hotel because, well… we took over the entire dining area. That was a pretty common theme for us throughout the trip, and it was always a sight to behold.

My papa, running to the camera to greet me on the first morning of the trip. Love him.

Lake Como – March 18, 2023

Our day trip to Lake Como was stunning. We started with a group meal at a restaurant in the town of Lake Como, then made our way to the ferry that brought us to Bellagio, a nearby village on the lake. The diffused light we got throughout the day melted the sun against the mountains and water; it was some of the best light I’ve ever shot in. We stayed in Bellagio until the sun set, exploring every back road and dapple of light that piqued our interest. It was a perfect day.

Castangola – March 19, 2023

And now we’ve arrived at the heart of our visit to Italy. Castagnola is a very, very small town in the mountains of Italy. It’s also the town that my great-great-grandparents families settled over 100 years ago. My cousin Jake, the one who organized this entire trip, centered our European excursion around seeing Castagnola together, because everyone in this current generation of our family is alive. Everyone from Joe Blum (my papa, the oldest member of the family) down to Francis Blum, the 11-month old youngest great-grandchild, is alive and well. And to see our ancestral home, together… well, it’s hard to put into words just how much that meant to us.

The members of Castagnola greeted us with the most generosity we’ve ever experienced. After we took a family photo in front of the church, we were given a tour of Castagnola. You could practically hear the sense of awe that enveloped us as we walked through the village together. The “America Finds Castagnola” banner in particular really hit home; many of us cried when we saw it, including me. After a presentation and thank you from town officials, we broke bread together in their local tavern and were given a meal that they had prepared for all 98 of us. The hospitality that they showed us was truly unbelievable and left a mark on all of us. If we only had one day in Italy together, this would have been the day.

Florence – March 20, 2023

After our time in Castagnola, we spent the next few days in Florence, which was beautiful. The first few days of the trip were very structured and fast-paced, so it was nice to take a beat and have some time to break off and explore the city on our own. We wandered as far as our legs would carry us each day and usually needed a nap by mid-afternoon.

One of the best moments in Florence was an evening spent at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a beautiful outlook over the city. Everyone in attendance was enamored with the scene before them as the sun dipped below the mountains and the city lights flickered on for the night.

Montepulciano – March 23, 2023

Our next stop was a day-trip to a beautiful vineyard outside Montepulciano in the Tuscany region. The views were spectacular; the Italian countryside truly is something to behold. The food and wine at the vineyard was perfect, and it was so much fun to have a meal with the whole family. This private outing also gave us the opportunity to take more photos together as a family, and frankly, I don’t think there’s a better place on earth for a huge Italian family to take a photo together.

Rome – March 24, 2023

Once we drank our fill of Italian wine, we traveled down to Rome, where we stayed for the remainder of the trip. We walked all over the place and visited so many historical classics, like the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi Fountain, and plenty more. We also visited the Coliseum as a full family, which was a pretty awe-inspiring visit, and felt even cooler doing that with everyone together.

We also managed to get into a gelateria with about 75 of the 98 family members in attendance, which was completely hilarious. Being packed shoulder-to-shoulder amongst your own family members in a tiny dessert spot in a city you’ve never been to before is just… a wild, remarkable, hilarious thing. I didn’t get any photos of this because I was too busy filming, so if you want to see that, well, check out the video above!

These images, and the many more I couldn’t fit into this article, hold some of the most precious memories my family will ever create together. Documenting this trip was truly one of the highest honors of my career so far. To piece together a time capsule of this scope that my family will look at for generations to come… it’s hard to put into words how much that means to me. I can already picture each of the families on this trip doing exactly what mine did when I was young; printing these images, stuffing them into photo books, and captivating their kids with stories of “that one time 98 of us flew to Italy together.”

I can’t wait to do the same.

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