Our old family photographs sit in boxes undisturbed waiting for us to
find the right opportunity to identify and organize them. They have an
amazing ability to charm even small children with their view of life in
other generations. The people and their clothing offer a glimpse at past
lives and daily events. They even look different from the photographs
we take today in their variety of shapes and colors. So why do they remain
unidentified sitting in shoeboxes in closets? Perhaps the task of identifying
those images seems daunting in its time commitment. However, this doesn't
have to be the case. There are moments when families come together that
present a perfect opportunity to bring out those boxes and work on the
identification as a team. The next time family members gather for that
holiday dinner, set aside some time to reminisce and attach names to the
people in those photographs. Who knows, it might become a tradition?
A Little Advance Planning
If you are the family genealogist and also the person responsible for
planning and executing the meal, preparing for another activity may seem
overwhelming. This doesn't have to be the case. Call another family member
and enlist their help with the picture project. They can make arrangements
for attendees to bring their own unidentified family photographs and assist
in gathering the few things you'll need to make the process run smoothly.
Build a Basic Photo Identification Kit
It's important to have a few items on hand to help take care of the pictures
while you are looking at them. Since even clean hands can deposit oils
and dirt on the images, it is necessary to wear white cotton gloves while
handling them. You can purchase several pairs of white cotton gloves from
an archival supplier. Other tools include an
adequate number of magnifying glasses, soft lead pencils, and some worksheets.
Magnifying parts of the photographs may allow you to see details in the
images, the pencil lets you lightly write the identification on the back
and the worksheets help you document your discoveries. You can also videotape
or tape record the identification conversations, rather than trying to
write down all the specifics. Worksheets are available in the back of
Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (Betterway,
2000). Use care, so that you don't cause any inadvertent damage such as
broken corners or abrasion from rubbing them against each other during
Extend the Invitations
This year instead of just inviting immediate family, ask other relatives
if they are interested in joining the activity. Specifically ask them
to bring historical photographs and explain what you are going to do.
You can even tell them to only bring photographs with them that are more
than 25 years old. Unless your family took lots of images, each person
will probably bring a small box of images with them. There are good reasons
for asking others to participate. Photograph collections contain some
Photograph collections are usually divided up when family members die
and that can result in an unidentified photograph in one collection being
identified in another. You'll be surprised how many relatives will be
familiar with the photographs in your collection even though you don't
know the names and circumstances surrounding the pictures. There may even
be similar images of a person taken in the same visit to the photographers.
Have Fun with the Identifications
If just looking at the pictures isn't enough to entertain some relatives
and you have time you could sponsor a contest for the participants. After
all, each holiday dinner is a mini family reunion, so why not have a few
activities to encourage interest in the photo identification process.
Baby Pictures: Play a game that revolves around correctly
matching the baby picture with the individual in the room or an ancestor
on the family tree.
Wisest: Present a small prize to the person who identifies
the most number of pictures. This can be a certificate drawn by the
smaller artists in the family or a real memento.
Oldest: You can award another certificate to the person who
brings the oldest picture with them.
The point is to encourage participation and keep the family focused on
the tasks so that they will continue to help after the afternoon is over.
Add to the Family Genealogy
Just looking at the images will act as visual reminders for long-forgotten
memories and family information. This is the type of material that will
bring your genealogy to life by adding details about the people you have
facts for but not memories of. Older family members may not recall the
answers to questions you ask, but when they see an image they may suddenly
remember when it was taken and who is represented. Even if the image was
taken before they were born, it may be part of their memory since picture
identifications are often passed on as oral rather than written tradition.
Photographs enable people to reminisce about all kinds of associated events
even if they are not depicted in the image.
The most difficult parts of the identification process are retaining
the identifications and making copies of what people brought with them.
You can easily double the photographic history of your family in one afternoon.
There are copyright laws that restrict the reproduction of images. If
you are making copies for personal use it usually isn't a problem. Should
you decide to publish images either in print or online consult the copyright
guidelines at the United
States Copyright Office or refer to a book on the topic at your public
library. This will prevent you from making a mistake that could result
in copyright infringement.
There are several things you can do:
If you own a scanner, create a separate file on your computer for
each image. By creating a digital version you can then share the pictures
with other family members. Be sure to have the permission of the owner
before sending their pictures to others or posting them on a family
Web site. Each scanned image can have a related text file that contains
the written information on the photograph. You can also incorporate
these images into your genealogical software package.
Make photographic copies with a camera. Unless you or someone in
your family is a professional photographer it can be difficult to
obtain a good quality copy using a camera without a special stand.
However you can make a reference copy that won't be good enough to
reproduce, but will act as a reminder of what the image looks like
and who owns it.
If you can find a Kodak Picture Maker system in your area in a store
that has holiday hours, you can make direct copies yourself. A complete
list of locations is available online at Kodak
or by calling 1-800-939-1302.
- Rent a copier. This is costly, but if you don't have any other way
of making copies of the images that people brought with them you might
want to investigate the possibilities. Office equipment rental agencies
often allow for a short-term contract for a desktop copier. Make sure
you rent one that has good image quality control for copying photographs.
Be careful not to expose older images to repeated copying. The light
and heat of the machine can damage photographs already in fragile condition.
Preserve the Memories
Now that you have succeeded in introducing even the most skeptical relative
to the joys of looking at old family photographs, you can integrate the
images into your family genealogy. Using the graphite pencil, lightly
write brief identifying data on the back of the photograph (never on the
front) including the full name of the person (if known) and their life
dates. A genealogical software package or a worksheet is a preferable
way to keep track of this material so that you can record who identified
the image, who owns it, and any stories or observations associated with
It is quite likely that relatives will look forward to another chance
to go over the images. Family photographs have a way of bridging the gap
between the generations by encouraging individuals to share memories and
laughter. Preschoolers will ask questions about the people in the pictures
and teenagers may stop to listen to their grandparents' recollections.
In the process you have created a new way for relatives to enjoy themselves.
You can use this old fashioned activity to establish a new tradition choosing
to repeat it on special days. Long distance relatives can even participate
via email and submit their photographs for identification. It is an activity
that reunites family.