Family historians love the idea of including photographs in their family history books. They see images of ancestors as completing the sketch of a person which emerges from research in the factual record. Their books will help them preserve the family photo albums, so they focus on identifying the people in the pictures. But many family historians overlook the value of photos as storytelling tools.
Think about the elements of a good story. Characterization is at the top of the list. What kind of a person was great-great-grandfather? What motivated your parent’s family to do something? Thoughtful use of photographs can help you get beyond the who, what, when, and where aspects of an ancestor’s story to the why which is often more interesting.
See how the choice of photographs might have a big impact on the story you want to tell. Look at the portraits of Nancy’s Great-Aunt Ceil and her Aunt Helen. They are the kind of photos that might grace the pages of a person’s family history book, but what do they tell us about the two women? Not much!
Ceil was described in family lore as “a wild one.” She was certainly unconventional. She was the first woman in Bayonne, New Jersey to own a car. She ran off to California as a single girl in the days when that just ”wasn’t done.” She was not only divorced before that was a common occurrence, she was married five times. She finally settled down and owned a restaurant at Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks at a time when it was unusual for a woman to own a business.
Helen was often described as an “adventurer”. She became a Dominican nun and did teach elementary school for a while, but she wasn’t your typical 3rd grade teacher. She earned a PhD in math and became a programmer in the early days of the computer age. Helen love to travel and got a job with the Department of Defense teaching at NATO bases in Europe for several years.
Take a look at two other photographs. How much better job do they do of conveying the type of women Ceil and Helen were?
Let’s look at an example of using a historical photograph to illustrate a person’s motivation. My mother’s family lived in Oklahoma. They came to California during the Great Depression. When describing why they left the image of the Dust Bowl would save a lot of words.
As you plan your family history book think not only about the photographs you want to include, but about how those photos might help you tell your ancestors’ stories.