Unlocking the Past: A Guide to Identifying Individuals in Old Photographs

Are your photographs filled with faces you can’t identify? In this post, learn how to discover who they belong to so you can preserve their legacy for future generations.

Over the years, I have accumulated numerous old pictures of family members. While some are recent relatives whom I recognize as my own, many more depict people whom I never actually met before.

If you own old photos like these, too, then you know how fortunate you are to possess them. Unfortunately, however, when viewing them is frustrating as many don’t recognize who all is represented in the images.

Digitizing or preserving our photos, for example by adding them to our Ancestry family tree for other family members to view, is something we all aspire to. However, in order to do this correctly we need to know who is in each photo.

Why Is Identifying Old Photographs Important? One of the primary reasons that we must attempt to identify who appears in old photographs is because doing so won’t become any easier with time passing. If we fail to try identifying who appears in old images now, our children and grandchildren may face greater difficulty when trying to piece together our family memories later on.

Further, without knowing who is in our photos, it will be impossible to preserve them in an impactful way for future generations. By knowing who these people are and knowing the photos’ intended destinations – be they physical prints or digital files – will become much simpler.

TIPS for Recognizing People in Old Photos
Below is just a small sampling of photographs in my collection where at least one individual remains unknown to me, yet these tips should help me identify who they are amongst a group setting – read on!

Are there clues in these pictures that I could use to help identify each and every person? There most certainly are!

Seek information in writing
Writing found on photos will provide the most reliable foundation of knowledge about them. Even if they do not list names directly, anything such as date/initials will provide us with vital clues towards understanding more of this piece of art.

One of the photos in my collage above features my great-great grandfather sitting surrounded by several children he left behind at his farm not long before his death. On its reverse, this photo reads, ‘Papa at Farm: shortly before He Died”

Instantly, I know the year and location where a photograph was taken.

Ask an Older Relative
One of the first steps we should take when we encounter an old photograph with unknown subjects is reaching out to an older relative for assistance. Doing this quickly may prove invaluable as older relatives often possess knowledge and personal experience which could allow them to provide answers quickly about a photograph’s subject matter.

An older relative might be someone from an earlier generation, or it could simply be an older sibling or cousin who can provide insights and memories regarding an event or memory.

Place of Storage as a Clue
Making a list of possible relatives may help narrow the search, and using existing information like where the picture was stored may prove invaluable in making decisions faster and more confidently.

If the photo was found in your mother’s box and stored with letters from her paternal grandmother, then perhaps its presence indicates its association to their branch of the family tree.

Or if the photograph was stored with a letter from a cousin, perhaps its subjects are her children or grandchildren? Or, if it came from your great aunt’s living room desk, perhaps these individuals are somehow connected?

Referring to your family tree
When trying to identify people in an image as being related, having a family tree as a reference point will prove very useful. A family tree will allow us to quickly pinpoint names and locations quickly – perfect for dealing with old photographs!

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