Why you should treasure your family photos ... & how to do this


09 November 2022
Surviving family photos are at the heart of our home archives and family collections. The richness that they add to our family history is part of what inspired genealogist Ann Larkham to become a Photogenealogist. Here we ask her about her dedication to digitising, organising, preserving and sharing family history photo collections. We think she might inspire you to take these steps with your collections too.

Why do you feel Photogenealogy is so important?

For two main reasons: Firstly, to care for the photos themselves and to preserve them for future generations, and secondly, because a photo puts a face to a name – it makes the person real and relatable, and that creates a strong connection. And that inspires me to find out more about the person’s life.

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What does it add to our understanding of our family history?

I’d like to use this photo of my 3x great grandad Joseph Bray to answer this question.

This photo was shared with me by a 2nd cousin that I connected with through Ancestry. Until my cousin shared this photo with me, Joseph was just a name, an Ancestry graphic and some dates. 

Then I looked into his eyes and it felt like he looked right back at me…an instant connection!

I immediately thought about the line of ancestors that connected me to him: my dad, my nan and my great grandad, all of whom I knew and remembered, and also my great great, grandad and now my great, great, great grandad who I ‘know’ through photos. 

I look at this photo of Joseph and I think about his life and the everyday joys and worries he had. I try to imagine him smiling or laughing and interacting with his grandchildren and great grandchildren - the same people that I knew when I was young. I think about all the decisions he made, and the chances and mischances he experienced, and how they led to the miracle of me being me.

Our family photos are our personal history. Not the history of monarchy and nobles written about in books, but the history of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. A family photo captures and preserves a moment of our ancestor’s life and also a moment of our history. A photo is a window to the past that can inspire and direct our future research and therefor our understanding of our ancestors and where we came from. But it’s not just about the past: recent research suggested that young people who know more about their families’ past, show higher levels of emotional well-being and are better equipped to deal with the present and to project themselves into the future.

You’ve written that you enjoy sharing your family photos with relations – tell us more about that?

I think the sharing part of photogenealogy is the most rewarding part and I’d like to use another photo to illustrate why.

My mum told me that this is her much-loved uncle Albert. Mum also revealed a family mystery about Albert’s son, Jack. Like all family historians I can’t resist a family mystery, and after some research I located Albert’s son, now named John, who had been estranged from our family for over 80 years, after Albert and his wife separated.

John didn’t remember his father and hadn’t even seen a photo of him. I was able to share photos of Albert with John. He said seeing the photos we shared and reconnecting with his father’s family was “life-changing”. 

Who’s interested?

I’ve never found anyone who is not interested in photos – all ages and all generations seem to love old photos. This is quite a different response to when I share family history research which often leads to eyes glazing over! It seems that lots of people just don’t ‘get’ family history, but everyone ‘gets’ photos.

What interests them? 

I think this is best illustrated by questions that I get asked when sharing photos: “Who is that?”, “When was it taken?”, “How are we related?”, “Where was it taken?”, “Why was it taken?” and usually “Can I have a copy, please?”.

What sharing formats do you find helpful? 

Digital sharing includes: attachments to emails; uploading to social media, family tree websites and digital archives; inclusion in slideshows or videos; and producing gifts including photobooks, calendars and jigsaws. Physical sharing includes giving framed copies of photos to relatives, and as a family we love to sit together and go through the albums of original photos.


Does it lead to other family history discoveries?
Shared bonds too?

I wrote about one of my photogenealogy discoveries for FT Magazine back in 2017.

Combining photo research, traditional family history research and some help from the experts at Forces war records, allowed me to identify this previously unknown photo as my great uncle Thomas, who died at the Battle of the Somme on 16th November 1916.

The identification of this photo inspired me to visit Thomas’ war memorial and the family history centre in his home town of Islington. This visit led to me, my mum and our cousin John being invited to unveil a memorial plaque to commemorate the centenary of the ending of the Battle of the Somme, and to Thomas’s story being told in the local newspapers.

It was especially wonderful to share this whole experience with our cousin John because it reinforced our newly discovered family bond.

Are there things that you wish earlier generations had done, with regards to family photo albums? 

Despite everything I advise about storing and preserving photos, my family history photographs have survived pretty well despite originally being stored in an old cardboard box along with certificates, newspaper clippings, nappy pins, the decoration from the top of a wedding cake, old diaries, keys and a leather purse! The contents of this box were also handled regularly by an over-enthusiastic younger version of myself.

So, I guess  what I wish they had done (or I had done as a child when looking at them with my nan) was to have written names, dates and stories on the back because now I have several family photos that no-one alive can identify.

And has this impacted you, and how you’re curating and caring for your family photo collections?

Yes, definitely! I am trying to identify as many photos as I can, and then writing as much information as I can discover on the back of the photos (very gently, only at the edges and using an 8B pencil). Once I have scanned the photos, I am adding metadata including the ‘story’ of the photo. Hopefully, this will help to ensure that this information is available in the future. I have also set up an online Personal Digital Archive for family history photos and documents and nominated a successor to take over from me when I am no longer around.

How do you go about it practically – ie are there any tools (hardware or software) that you wouldn’t be without when working on your Photogenealogy?

I use camera scanning, which is fast and produces high quality scans. This is quite expensive to set up, but there are other free or cheaper ways to scan. When I started I just used an ordinary all-in-one printer/scanner that I already had but it was a really slow process. There are other types of scanners too (including your mobile phone). The best scanner for you will depend on what you want to do with your photos once they are scanned. 

Other essentials include software for organising and editing your scans. I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. These require a subscription but Adobe Bridge is a free alternative that can do many of the things that Lightroom can, but works in a different way. Free photo editing software also exists, e.g. paint.net. Also, computers usually come with basic organising and editing software, e.g. Windows File Explorer, which allows metadata to be added, filenames to be changed, and a folder structure to be set up.

Other tools I use include a photo cleaning and dust removal kit, external hard drives for storing and backing up digital photos, and archive-quality ringbinder boxes and polyester sleeves.

Tell us about making a Genealogical Will, particularly as it relates to bequeathing the family photo collection?

Leaving your family history photos and research as an organised legacy that is a joy, not a burden, is an important part of photogenealogy. A Genealogical Will is the key to ensuring that all the hard work involved in creating your legacy is not only passed on, but is also treasured, used and added to. It’s important (as with a traditional Will) to warn your heir(s) that you will be naming them. Ideally, try to get them involved with your photos and research before the fateful day.

There are Genealogical Will templates available on line, and although these do not usually refer specifically to photos, they can easily be adapted to include them. Include in your Genealogical Will information about where your legacy is stored, both the physical and digital photos and the research documents. For digital storage you will need to include passwords etc. It is a good idea to set aside some funds in your traditional Will to help your heir(s) maintain and care for your legacy (much more info about all of this is available in Photogenealogy Step 5, FT Magazine (December 2022)).

So, you’ve finished the series of articles about Photogenealogy in Family Tree, what are your plans with Photogenealogy next?

I plan to continue learning. Hardware, software, procedures and ideas are continually updating and evolving in the field of photogenealogy. 
I love writing, so I plan to write some more photogenealogy articles, to start a photogenealogy blog, and long term I plan to write a photogenealogy book. The multi-disciplinary nature of photogenealogy means that I have had to learn from lots of different sources. I want to distil this knowledge into one straightforward manual to help people conquer the task of organising, preserving, enjoying and passing on their family history photos. 
And last, but definitely not least, I am in the process of setting up a photogenealogy business. It’s still in the early stages but I am very excited because I think I have just got my first client!


All images on this blog copyright Ann Larkham