Have you ever found a photo on a public tree or website? One that MIGHT be a photo of someone in your tree? A photo you have never seen before, and maybe the only photo you have ever seen of someone?
In fact, one of my most tantalizing photo finds still vexes me. Are you wondering why a photo find would vex me? Let me tell you all about it.
That man up there is my 2nd great grandfather, Francis Cyprien Duval. He was born in Rimouski, Québec to a long line of French folk who had lived in Québec for a few centuries. He was the first in that direct line to leave Québec. He settled in Alaska and married Alice and then they moved around a bit before finally settling in Lynn Valley, BC where Francis died. We have a few scant family notes about his parents and siblings. I knew his parents names and that they also left Québec and were buried in Blind River, Ontario. I had a small handful of first names of some of his siblings and just a few other facts. Because he is one of my immigrant ancestors, I feel very fortunate to have a small collection of photographs of him. Enough in fact, that his image is well established in my family history. Plenty of the photos are labeled and were labeled by his children. That means that I trust that I know what he looks like and that those labels are accurate.
There is one other important reality because he was an immigrant – I have no photos, stories, and other artifacts for the family he left behind and never saw again.
So imagine my sheer delight when I came across this photo on Ancestry.com:
This photo is tagged to the parents, sister, niece, and grand-nephew of my 2nd great grandfather Francis Cyprien Duval as he appears in another Ancestry.com user tree. You will notice that the original poster included the names of each person in the description of the photo – bonus points for that. You will also notice that it has been saved to several trees (including mine).
So why does this photo vex me?
Well, I have never seen a photo of Alexis/Alexander Duval & Marie Louise Demers anywhere else. I have nothing to compare this image to. When I came across it, I messaged the person who posted the photo and asked about the provenance of the photo. Who had it, how she got it, how she knew for sure that it was a picture of who she said it was a picture of. Before I basked in the deliciousness of finding a photo of ancestors for whom I do not have a photo, I wanted to make sure this photo was really a picture of my 3rd great grandparents. I wanted to be as certain as was possible before I called it good and saved it to my tree.
The poster of said photo was very kind, and busy, and said she would get back to me after she returned from a trip. Totally understandable. Despite some communication after the trip, I have been unable to acquire the information I am seeking.
I look at this photo and want so much for it to be what it is proclaimed to be. I see features of my Grandma in their faces. I really want to call it good. I want to tell everyone in my family about this cool find. But it vexes me. I don’t completely trust it.
You have probably come across a few photos that you hoped were labeled correctly too. For me, it mostly happens when I am researching collateral relatives – siblings of ancestors, siblings-in-law of ancestors, cousins, etc. Often I am researching these extended family members to help me take my tree further back. But in doing this research, I can’t help but feel connected to these aunts, uncles, and cousins. So when I come across an image of them – I love it! It feels like a little treat at the end of the journey of learning about their life and how they were connected to my other family members.
But just like the possible photo of my 3rd great grandparents, I don’t completely trust a photo that isn’t labeled well.
So how can you give a photograph a good citation? How can you help extended family members know that this photo you have shared is attributed to the right people?
I know that Evidence Explained contains a model for citing a photograph. I’m sure the instructions are excellent and accurate. I should really buy that book, but I haven’t. So here are my tips for giving a photo a good citation based on my experience dealing with thousands of photos I have inherited from both sides of my family. Let’s use an actual photo of my grandparents to help us.
Your photo deserves a descriptive title. It doesn’t have to be long, it just needs to be somewhat descriptive. A good title should includes names and a date or event name. i.e. “Ronald Peterson and Margaret Ellis, photo when Ronald had leave”. If I have lots of photos of Ronald and Margaret – which I do – I want the title to be unique to the photo.
Your photo also deserves a detailed description. You may not know every detail, but include anything you do know. There are several important details to try to include:
- Who is in the photo. Use the “front row, l-r: and back row, l-r:” style to help make sure everyone is identified. For this photo, I can stick with the names – Ronald Peterson and Margaret Ellis – since they are the only people in the photo.
- When the photo was taken. List the date or approximate date of the photo. If you don’t know the date, you probably know a date range or time period, include that. The next generation will know even less than you do, so help them out. I don’t know the exact date of the photo, but I know it was taken while my Grandpa was serving in the Marine Corps. He served from 1944-1946.
- Where the photo was taken. This can be trickier if the photo predates you. In the case of my photo, I know that this photo would most likely have been taken in front of one of their homes because his leave was short – 24 or 48 hours long – and he hitchhiked from Colorado to Ogden, Utah. He was only able to be there for a few hours before he had to start back. I know what the front of Ronald’s family home looked like and this home is not a match. I know that I have photos of Margaret’s family home somewhere that I could compare the photo to, I’m just not sure where they are (remember, I have thousands and I’m still working on scanning and organizing). So I would probably note this photo as possibly being taken in front of the Ellis family home.
- The provenance of the photo. How did the photo make it to you? How do you know the facts of the photo? Who labeled it? Why would they have known who is in the photo? This can be simple or detailed, but this part is probably the most important part of your description. In my case, this photo was part of my Grandmother’s collection. The photo itself was not labeled, but there are hundreds of other photos of both Ronald and Margaret that are labeled in her collection. The details surrounding this photo were told to me by my dad. That is an important piece of information because someone else may remember the details differently and question my description. Knowing who gave portions of the description helps other family members weigh the differences between my description and their memory or the memory of other relatives.
So, what would my title and description be for this photo?
Title: Ronald Peterson and Margaret Ellis, photo when Ronald had leave
Description: Ronald Peterson and Margaret Ellis. Photo taken in Ogden, Utah, possibly in front of the Ellis family home (more work needed to establish location) when Ronald was home on leave. Ronald served in the Marine Corps from 1944-1946. Their son Kent shared the following details – “Ronald was given a short 24 or 48 hour leave. He wanted to go home and see his family and his girlfriend. He hitchhiked and only had a few hours to spend with loved ones before he had to head back to Colorado.” This photo comes from the collection of Margaret Ellis that is in the current care of her granddaughter Amberly Peterson Beck.
This photo is a family favorite, so taking time to be a bit more detailed is important to me. However, our time as genealogists is precious and limited. We can’t spend this much time on every single photo ever taken of all of our loved ones.
So, when should you be this precise?
- When a photo is the only one or one of just a few of a person. The more rare a photo, the more details we want to include – especially about the provenance.
- When the photo has special significance like the photo of my Grandma and Grandpa from the example. My Grandparents treasured this photo and we have all in turn treasured it. The next generation of my family deserves to know the special details of the photo. What makes a photo special is up to you. Is the event special? Is the combination of people in the photo special? Is it just a favorite photo? Whatever the reason it is special to you, make sure the description reflects the import of the photo for future generations.
Let’s look at one more example of a photo I added to FamilySearch:
This photo was in an album my Grandmother created. She labeled it with only the names, Beth Christensen and Margaret.
(Hmmm… I would like to point out that the home looks an awful lot like the home in the background of the photo of my Grandparents. I think I was onto something in guessing it was taken in front of the Ellis home.)
It took a little bit of work for me to figure out who Beth Christensen was. There were no photos of Beth in FamilySearch at the time, so I added this and two others. My title and description are pretty simple. I did them quickly, but because there were no other public photos of Beth, I wanted anyone who viewed the photo to know enough about where the photo came from, to trust that the image was really of Beth. I chose to include the detail of who Beth and Margaret’s common ancestors are because they are not in the same generation. They are 1st cousins, once removed.
My title and description aren’t quite as good for this photo – but I felt like they covered what was most important, based on what I knew.
So next time you post a photo to a public tree or website, spend an extra minute giving your photo a good citation. Help your extended family members out. Tell them who, when, where, the provenance of the photo, and any other special or important details surrounding the photo or people in the photo. Your family members will thank you!