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    Finding Meaning in Family Photographs

    What does that family photo mean?

    That’s not a question many people ask themselves as they create their family history book, but they should.

    “Family photographs can be considered cultural artifacts because they document the events that shape families' lives,” said Charles Williams, Online Features editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “…In many cases, photographs are the only biographical material people leave behind after they die.”

    Maureen Taylor, described by the Wall Street Journal as “the nation’s foremost historical photo detective” explains, ““As social history documents, photographs let us peek into the past whether they were taken a few minutes ago or decades earlier. Each is a freeze frame of a historical moment in all its complex aspects, from family history to political events.”

    San Francisco Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph delivers a speech at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1917 (photo courtesy of

    To unlock the meaning in family photographs you’ll need to look at them in a different way than most of us usually do.

    Here are some hints on extracting meaning from photographs:

    • Begin by identifying the people in the photo. You may want to refer to our posts Identifying People in Old Family Photos and Identifying People in Family Photo Albums for some tips on how to do so.
    • Where are the people? The setting can convey a lot of meaning. A photo of the family farm or home can indicate a lot about the economic status and social standing of the people in the picture. By looking at objects surrounding the people in a photo taken indoors you can gain similar insights about the family’s circumstances.
    • Does the photograph depict an event, an action, an occupation, or a celebration? Ask yourself why the people in the photograph thought this moment was important to record. Sometimes what you see is incidental to the moment the participants sought to capture. For example, I have a photograph of my father at age six and his brother five in 1918. They are at a parade celebrating the end of World War I waving pennants depicting the flags of all of the victorious allies. The incidental detail; they are both wearing surgical masks to protect them against the Spanish Flu epidemic then sweeping the globe.
    • Can you make any deductions, inferences or generalizations about the lives of the people in the photograph? I have a collection of photos of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco taken by my father’s aunt who worked for Eastman Kodak. Europe had descended into the inferno of the Great War, World War I, six months before the World’s Fair opened. One of the things Aunt Florinet’s pictures of the fair showed was how far away the war seemed to the average American celebrating San Francisco’s recovery from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire and the technological wonders of the new century. It’s unlikely that any of the men in the photos gave any thought at all to the possibility that they might soon die in the trenches on the Western Front.

    When you look at photos in this way you’ll begin to realize that they are more than just potential illustrations for your book. They are windows into the values and world views of the people they contain. They can add insights into the nature of the people you have come to know through vital records, written documents and family lore. And, it's fun!


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