I’m sure I’m not alone in not having tons of choices when it comes to deciding which photos represent my family story. For my great-grandparents, I either have one solitary photo of each or no photographs at all. By default, that’s the photo that will represent their part of the family story.
That’s why I was so ecstatic last year to discover a photo album that goes back over 100 years in my in-law’s apartment. Despite its missing cover—as well as quite a few photos, it’s still a trove of family heirlooms—and family stories. Enough to put the proverbial flesh on the bones of bare facts and make me want to write about these in-law-ancestors.
And now, when it comes to selecting an image to help tell family stories, I have a choices.
Listening to my favorite expert on choosing photos that portray moments that matter brought this precious photo album back to mind. Sharleen Reyes, Legacy Republic’s VP of Marketing, was coaching company consultants on helping customers decide which photos make good candidates for “Family Keepsakes,” premium prints on canvas, metal and more.
Reyes rules of thumb work well for those of us who are choosing the photos that represent our family story, particularly for those of us that are writing our ancestors’ stories and profiles. In essence, we’re doing the same thing: determining which photos are “keepers” and which ones are true family legacies.
Needless to say, the more recent the generation, the more photos you’ll have to choose from.
Tips for Choosing Which Photos Represent your Family Story
Using recently scanned images from my in-law’s photo albums, I’ll take a few of Sharleen’s points and illustrate how they helped me choose which photos best embody and speak for my in-laws’ family story.
Sometimes a photograph appeals to us artistically due to its setting, clothing, or composition. The photo below of my grandmother-in-law, probably taken in the late 1920s, is a tad washed out, but makes good use of the rule of thirds and a subject who is leaning into the frame. The snow in the foreground as well as the tree and house in the background, add interest.
Of course, there are other considerations that trump the quality and composition rule.
Sharleen Reyes challenges family historians to distinguish between a perfect photo and a perfect moment when deciding which photo represents your family story.
What does the photo—or the occasion pictured—mean to the family? Perhaps it’s a wedding or a great-grandmother with a newborn. Other “perfect moments reflect personality, tell a story, or spark conversations.
When it comes to my husband’s family, here’s one of our favorites:
No one remembers the exact occasion of this photo of William and Uvaun Tuffs, though guesstimates put in in the mid to late 1920’s, in the early years of their marriage. Nevertheless, we all adore this snap shot.
William Tuffs died when his grandchildren were young. They didn’t get to grow up seeing the love that he shared with his wife. This photo, with them relaxing together on the lawn, is a family favorite. An un-posed slice of life.
What’s the Story Behind the Photo?
Photos with a story are the most likely ones to be moments that matter. Those precious moments are the ones that give life to the family story.
Although it’s not a traditional photograph, the image below represents does a great job of telling a story. One-year-old Ray Hedgecock “introduces himself” to his aunt and uncle.
It’s heartwarming to read, “Ma and Pa think I am just awful cute, but I don’t let on that I know much.” Bert Hedgecock, aka Pa, didn’t get to watch Ray grow up, dying in November of 1908.
Below is another great storytelling photo of Ray Hedgecock when he was all grown-up. (He married Dorothea, the pretty girl on the snowy steps, if you’re trying to keep up.)
Looking at this photograph leads to the inevitable stories about Ray’s huge ham radio antenna over his Louisville, Kentucky home. These stories lead to other stories, from Ray laying telephone lines in Wisconsin in the 20s to him traveling around the country, setting up some of the earliest airport radar arrays in the 50s and 60s.
This photo also meets another of Sharleen Reye’s tenets: Choose Photos that make you ask questions. Curiosity about the equipment and call letters on the wall lead to great conversations with younger family members about how unusual it was, once upon a-not-too-long-ago time for a man to have real-time conversations with people around the world.
The two photographs below show my husband’s grandfather, Ray Hedgecock as a young man. (He’s in the center of the portrait on the right, flanked by his two step-brothers).
Both of these photos are precious. It’s the photo on the right, however, that pulls the family’s heart-strings.
Ray was not close with his step-brothers in his adult life (A mystery we should have asked more questions about while he was alive), so their presence in the frame with him isn’t a great draw, although important genealogical reasons.
One of the most remarkable things about Ray Hedgecock was his love for music and learning. As a young man, he played violin in a community band. In his sixties, he took up the cello. So, of course they love this photo where he posed with the banjo.
Your Turn: Which Photos Represent Your Family Story
Do you have favorite photos that help you tell your family story? What appeals to you about them? How do they reveal personality?