Thoughts on Family Photos

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I don’t think we tend to take pictures with the thought in mind that people in future generations will be looking at them. We figure we’ll always be around to clarify the photos – who is in them, where they were taken, when they were taken, what the occasion was that prompted the shot. Or, we assume that the photo only has meaning to ourselves, so there is no need to jot a note on the back of the print, or throw in some keywords or a description to our on-line photos.

This subject has been on my mind for the past several weeks. My husband and I had to make a last-minute trip to Wyoming – his father passed away in December, and he did not leave a will or any indication of his wishes. There are a LOT of details to be taken care of, when someone passes away. Especially if they haven’t made arrangements first. So, in tandem with the grief that we felt at my father-in-law’s passing, there was also the stress of being completely unsure of how to proceed.

As we were organizing my father-in-law’s belongings, we came across a lot of loose photographs. Some were tucked in books, others were stashed in envelopes. Very few of them had any description whatsoever about the people, places, and things in the photos. We were left wondering who these people were that meant something to this man, that he would take or receive their photos.

Then we came across some photographs that were quite old – my father-in-law was born in the 1930′s, and photos of his childhood were tucked here and there throughout his belongings. There were friends and family members, vacations and homes, that we just couldn’t identify. Even with the input of my husband’s VAST collection of cousins, we were unable to determine any specifics for many of the images.

It made us sad, that the last person on Earth who knew who the people were in these photos had passed away without leaving their stories behind for us to enjoy. I experienced a very similar concern last spring when I visited my Uncle in Maine. As the eldest surviving relative on my mother’s side of the family, I MADE him sit down at the kitchen table with me, for several days in a row. We’d look at one photo after another, and I would scan merrily away type furiously as he told me the stories behind the photos. Even though he knew most of them, he didn’t know all of them, and so the mystery endures.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to KNOW those stories. And it will be important to your loved ones in the future when they come across the photos that YOU’VE taken. So please, take the time to write a quick note on the back of your prints. Keyword and describe your on-line photos. Add information to metadata. Give future generations the gift of your experiences.

Photo (click to enlarge): A wheel from one of the wagons that my husband’s descendants traveled in to their homestead in Wyoming in the 1800′s. Now THAT is a story I wouldn’t have wanted to miss!!!!

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  • Jean-Francois Pare

    Hi Tiffany,

    my heart is with you and your husband. Both my parents are sick and seem so fragile, last night I got my father in the hospital with respiratory problems. A message to all, just do it while you can… be it scanning, get in touch, reconcile…
    Once again, my condolences.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Jean-Francois.  I do hope your parents are well soon.

  • 1000memories

    Tiffany, our sincerest condolences. We actually created our site to address this very problem, in hopes that old family photos (and the stories that go with them) are preserved for future generations. Hopefully you might find it helpful.
    The 1000memories team

  • Mark

    What you say here is very much on my mind – assembling a family photo archive with titles and supporting notes that should make sense to some future generation that knows none of the people featured. May I ask everybody a technical question? I used Apple’s iPhoto to organise and title the pics, and iPhoto does that very well. But then, I wanted to burn it all to disk in non-iPhoto form – of course, because who knows where iPhoto will be in fifty years’ time? But the non-iPhoto file discarded all of my careful retitling, and utterly destroyed the order of photos. All I could then do was manually number-code each pic outside iPhoto (to re-establish the order) then manually enter the new titles (for 400 pics and counting …). Does anyone know a way around this? I can find no command that applies your iPhoto titles to the original files, and I am pretty sure there isn’t one.