Stop. Look. Listen to Your Family Photos

Stop for a moment and take a look at your boxes and albums of pictures. There is a good chance that at least some of them have writing on the back or in the case of an album, underneath the image.

Can you trust that information? Maybe. It depends on who wrote it.

Photo captions and oral history are like the game of telephone.

At the time the picture was taken someone knew who was photographed. That’s a given. As is usually the case, no one wrote that information down at the time. Why would they? They knew them. It wasn’t a mystery. Then.

Fast-forward a few decades. All the living people connected to that picture are older or deceased. If you’re lucky, they wrote the information on the image and actually remembered it correctly. As we age memory gets tricky.

Captions are suspect.

When listening to their older relatives talk about a picture (if they did at all), well-meaning relatives may not have heard the identification correctly or they thought it was a different person with the same name.

Mis-information, mis-understanding, and misinterpretation of the pictorial evidence can blind even experienced family historians to the truth in those pictures. You want to believe that the person who wrote the caption knew what they were talking about. But that’s not always the case.

For example, great grandmother May told her daughter that the picture was May’s great grandmother. The daughter in turn told her children who it was but by the time she did she was confused and wasn’t sure if she was remembering correctly. She wrote those details on the back and then she told her descendants what she could remember.

This oral tradition of photo identification goes back to the first photographs taken in the 1840s but it often stops when the original owner of the picture dies. What’s known about a picture stops when you hit a brick wall of remembrance. You might own photographs taken in the 1960s or the 1860s that are unidentified because no one remembers who’s in the photos.

It happens.

The 4 D’s of Photo Identification

At a recent funeral I met the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of some of my cousins. My aunt (their mother) was almost a generation older than her youngest sibling (my mother). The people I knew growing up are not the relatives they knew as children.

I’ll bet that if I show those great grandchildren a picture of my grandparents that they won’t recognize them and probably don’t know anything about them. Not even a handwritten note on those pictures is likely to jog their memory. They didn’t know those people. So how does that caption information gap happen?

A faulty memory isn’t the only roadblock to a correctly captioned photo, there are at least four other causes as well. I see it all the time. The 4 D’s of photo identification problems are early death, divorce, distance, and deception.

Those people at that family funeral lived within their nuclear family—parents and grandparents. Not the extended family of my grandparents that once lived within blocks of each other. Divorce separated many of them from our branch of the family.

Sometimes this identification gap can happen very quickly within a generation.

Death and Distance

My first cousin on my father’s side lived in California for most of her life apart from our grandmother and other family members. When her brother died she found a box of pictures in his things. She didn’t know her own grandmother. Heartbreaking. We spent an afternoon talking family history one picture at a time.

My cousin’s parents both died when she was 18, an age at which most folks aren’t considering their family heritage. Her older brother got the stuff—the memories and the pictures. Then he died leaving her wondering about her past and her family history.

I remember sitting at a restaurant with her brother’s daughter drawing a chart of the family on a napkin explaining family history to her and recounting the stories I remembered.   She was mesmerized. The missing pieces of her life were coming together. She took the stained napkin with her.

Deception: Deliberate or Not

Pictures can hold secrets.

Young love and broken marriages for instance. You may find pictures of people who died young that the family still grieves.

My paternal Aunt Dot had a child who died as a toddler from whooping cough. No one on my Dad’s side ever mentioned him. My grandmother was babysitting at the time. He died on her watch.

My mother told me a bit about the story. Not a picture of him exists in our family collection. Did my family throw them out? Or did they never take the tyke to the studio? I don’t know. My father threw out all sorts of things when she died, probably material I’d love to have.

This week I saw a distant cousin on my father’s side. She gave me some pictures of my grandmother. In one she holds a baby. One I’ve never seen before. It might be that child. I’m going to look for a birth and death record for my aunt’s child. Fingers crossed it’s him.

That one picture great grandmother May misidentified could hold the key to your hidden family story. She may have thought she was protecting the family from its secrets.


The Healing Power of Pictures

Identifying family photos is important. It can change your life. Really.

Believe it or not family history and photographs have the power to heal old wounds and solve past problems. The people in those pictures once lived, loved, and learned. They are part of your family story.

Understanding those pictures together with your family history is about undoing the destructive power of those 4 Ds. It’s about putting those pictures back into the tapestry of family history. Your history.

The full realization of those pictures and how they fit into your life can bring you to tears. I know because I see it happen with my clients more often than not. That’s how powerful a picture can be.

Take the time to look at your pictures and listen to the stories they tell. You might be surprised by what they have to say.