Haleh Shoa came to this country from Iran during the revolution in 1979. She and her family left Iran with only the clothes on their backs and a suitcase full of memories: photos and heirlooms. The reverence for family history that was handed down to her from her parents has continued through Shoa’s life and is now her calling. Shoa is the founder and chief curator for Picturli, a photo organization, restoration and design boutique, located in Westchester. What began as a photo scanning and digital preservation company has morphed into so much more during COVID. Living through a pandemic helped reinforce the importance of family memories and gave people the time to organize their photo collections. Shoa heeded the call from her clients for more services and invested in additional technology to be able to scan and digitize these captured memories in any form—whether photos, VHS tapes or other media, as well as offer a full range of creative services. For example, during COVID when people were unable to visit their grandparents, Picturli began a service where family members could send in celebratory video messages. Shoa would then combine them to make a beautiful video that could be shared online with the whole family.
After emigrating from Iran, Shoa’s family first moved to Detroit for a short time before planting roots in Manhattan Beach, where she lived for 17 years. She knew that when she opened her business, she wanted to serve a tight-knit community and loved Westchester’s small-town feel. Although Picturli serves clients globally, Westchester and her office in the Triangle have proven to be the perfect home base.
When Shoa started Picturli, she quickly knew she had found what she calls her “heart business” when she met with one of her first clients, an African- American gentleman with a powerful story to tell. The man’s relatives were from a prominent family that lived in the North during the Civil War, and felt it was important to preserve their family history. Over the years, more than 80 photos and more than 900 letters from the 19th century were handed down through family members before he became their steward. Fortunately, he kept the historical treasures in archival boxes, so they were fairly well preserved. With Shoa’s help, his library of memories was digitally preserved, color corrected, captioned and dated using Library of Congress Standards.
Once they were restored, her client donated his family’s collection to The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, one of The New York Public Library’s renowned research libraries. It is a world-leading cultural institution devoted to the research, preservation and exhibition of materials focused on African-American, African Diaspora and African experiences. Photos of African-Americans during the 1800s are few and far between due to slavery, so to have such a vast collection is truly amazing. After donating the photos to The Schomburg Center, he received a phone call from them that was astounding. The center had received another donation of photos and letters from a family from about the same time period. Researchers noticed that the man in the photos looked similar to Shoa’s client’s family photos. As it turns out, his grandfather, the patriarch of the family, had another family who also donated their collection to The Schomburg Center! The person who donated them was a new family member he didn’t know he had. For Shoa, it was amazing that both families had not only painstakingly preserved their photos and letters, but had also donated them to the same library! It is this type of “magic” that keeps her motivated to help all her clients.
Another memorable client gave Shoa a collection of photos dating from 1839-1980. Since the photos spanned more than a century, the collection was basically a history of photography. The collection included the earliest type of photography, daguerreotype, which was invented in Paris and is distinctive by its silver-coated plate and mirror-like surface. Then there was cabinet card photography from the turn of the century, which used a negative and provided images that were clearer and had brighter colors. With photos capturing a family over a 140-year period, Picturli was able to use the power of AI to identify family members and archive the entire collection.
“My client was astounded that the stories that had been told to her about her family members in the photos were so inaccurate,” said Shoa. “The photos were so faded, but through Picturli’s technology, her family was brought to life!”
She is also able to harness the power of AI when restoring school photos from the turn of the century. These photos usually have a whole classroom of children in them, so the images are small and blurry. She can color correct them and restore them so that the images are clear. Oftentimes, Shoa and her staff have to put on their detective hats and identify who is who and date the images. She has found over the years that photos from the 1980s and 1990s are some of the most difficult to date and caption because there are so many photos! During these decades, it was very popular to order multiples of one image when film was being developed. Shoa’s clients will often have boxes and boxes of similar photos from this time period. In addition to physical photos,
Picturli also organizes digital libraries. In fact, Shoa says that digital assets are at a much higher risk of being lost or deleted, so they first concentrate on them to make sure they’re consolidated, backed-up and preserved, before adding them to a photo hub.
Through her work, Shoa has discovered that many of her clients want to know “the importance of where they come from and heal the wounds of the past, but they must accept the past in order to move forward.” Going through a family’s albums and boxes of photos often bring up negative memories, as well as the happy ones, leading to a range of emotions as clients are reminded of divorce and death, birthday celebrations and weddings. Walking her clients through this process has inspired Shoa to become a certified life coach. She feels that going through pictures with a client can wake up the “energy” within the photos and often her clients have family members visit them in their dreams after the photos are restored. Through her skills as a life coach, she can help clients work through the feelings that arise as their ancestors emerge from the photos. What Picturli has to offer is way beyond a scanning service, it is paying homage to the past while looking towards the future.
Learn more at picturli.com.