09 May 2012


     When I am in South Jersey, I never miss a meeting of the Irish American Family History Society (IAFHS). I always learn something new from this knowledgeable and enthusiastic group. Their topic last week was Internet Genealogy, but the discussion veered into the preservation of photographs. The group is very lucky to have a professional photojournalist as a member ("Mr. B"), so we are always veering off into the topic of photography in order to goad Mr. B into sharing his knowledge with us!
     Most people fail to label photographs with sufficient information.  Mr. B pointed out that names and dates do not adequately identify the contents of a photograph. A conscientious family historian should follow the "5 W's" in labeling every photo: who, what, when, where, and why.
      (Use a soft pencil to write on the back of the photo. If you are naming photos on a computer, be as descriptive as possible, as most naming fields will accommodate quite a bit of information).

THE 5 W'S (thanks to Mr. B)
Wish someone had
at least written
1. Who? Full names of each person in the photo are necessary. I might know who "Aunt Em" is, but future generations won't know who "Em" was or whose aunt she might have been. Don't forget maiden names of married females. Don't use nicknames exclusively, although it is a good idea to include them in parenthesis with the person's proper name. 
     A fellow researcher once sent me numerous photos of a woman identified as "Baby." Everyone else had a first name.
      I have also seen tons of photos with everyone identified except for a person named "me!"
2. What? What is the subject of the photo? As family historians, we tend to focus on the names of the people in the photo, but sometimes we have photos of houses, scenery, workplaces, stores, streets, etc. The non-human subjects or background should be identified also. Even with photos of people, it is advisable to ask "what?" Are the people in a group of some kind, for example, "Magee first cousins," "St. John's First Communion Class of 1960," or "John Magee's bowling team?"
Knowing where this
photo was taken
helped me to identify
the woman as
my great grandmother
3. When? Be as specific as possible with dates. Dates can be crucial clues in genealogical research.
4. Where? Writing "Camden, NJ" is not enough. Again, be as specific as possible: a full street address, a building's name, an intersection, or the address and owner of a backyard (Example: "Jim Large's back yard at 1545 Lees Avenue in Camden, NJ, with Camden City Hall in the distant background far left").
5. Why? Why was the photograph taken? What is the story told by the photo? Do you know a reason why the people in the photo were together? Why they were at the location? Why was Aunt May's photo taken that day? Was a family or individual portrait taken for a special reason or as a gift to a special person? Why is the family standing in front of that building? Why were they at the beach that day?
      Every picture tells a story--don't forget to include that story!

Oh, there is a story in this photo, for sure!
But will I ever know?