Guest Post: The Power of Photos

Guest Post: The Power of Photos

This is a guest post by Helen V. Smith. A speaker, researcher, and author, she has been researching family history since 1986 in Australia, England, Ireland and Wales, with a strong interest in medical and social history. She has registered the surname Quested, with the Guild of One-Name Studies, researching it worldwide. She has spoken in every state in Australia, and internationally in New Zealand, Canada, US, England and aboard the Unlock the Past cruises. She is the author of “Death Certificates and Archaic Medical Terms,” “Google the Genealogist’s Friend,” and numerous family history articles. She is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and Genealogical Speakers Guild (GSG).

We have all heard the saying, “A picture paints a thousand words,” meaning that a picture or photo can convey its essence more efficiently than writing those thousand descriptive words.

This has never been so true than when using a photo of a past time to show the context of the time. The wedding, graduation, holiday and birthday photo all evoke memories in the viewer. Just looking at a picture can bring back memories of sounds, scents and the emotions of the event. The same frozen moment in time can bring back different memories and emotion to different people present at the same event. This is why it is always worth asking different members of the family about their memories. One may remember the music played at the wedding and how Uncle Arthur thought he was such a great dancer, but really that Aunt Violet always had sore toes after she danced with him. Another might remember the funny toasts given to the bride and groom while others may remember the best man getting the boys together to tie cans to the wedding vehicle. It can be worthwhile getting a group together and recording what is said, especially as one memory can lead to another.

Look at a photo of your hometown main street in the year your ancestor arrived. Was there electricity? What shops or businesses do you see? How were the buildings constructed? Was the road paved or dirt? From those moments of looking at that image, you can place yourself in your ancestor’s shoes, you can see what they saw. You can imagine the sounds (and perhaps the smells) of the horse-drawn vehicles, the dust from the dirt street, the weight of the long dresses, the constriction of movement. How was it different from where they had previously lived?

We can find these photos in local history collections at libraries, universities and family history societies. You may sometimes even find them among your own or your extended family’s photos or a neighbors’ photos. Maybe you might find one in a digitized newspaper. There are some free newspaper sites:

Chronicling America:

Trove (Australia): (also has Picture Australia)

Papers Past (New Zealand):

and MyHeritage also has many newspapers in its collections.

There are also some online photo sites such as Flickr:

Many archives and local history collections have photos dating over a time span of their community.

The power of pictures is even more important when we are interacting with a family member who has dementia. In these cases, it is often easier for the person to recall old memories than current events. Making a photo album of their life including key moments of them interacting with others, their participation in activities they enjoyed, attending weddings, parties, holidays, or of their home or car can encourage those earlier memories to come to the fore. Enlarge the photos to make them easier to see as vision may be a problem, and a larger image of a group is easier to see. Label the photo where possible. Reminiscing about the past is regularly used as a therapeutic approach in dementia as it is a good way to start conversations as long as it is done with care. Not all memories of the past are happy ones. Playing music of the times in the background can also enhance the experience and may spark further memories.

It is important that we all share our photos where possible. Those of family, the local area and more especially, those labeled ones in our collections of family friends, as it could well be a treasure never seen before by a descendant. Sharing photos is collaborative genealogy at its best. It also increases their preservation as “many copies keep them safe”!

Do check out MyHeritage’s recently announced Photo Discoveries feature. Learn more at

Let us know how you like the new feature in the comments below. Enjoy!