looking-at-old photos


Even if you weren’t born before the dawn of digital cameras—think of old family photo albums—you might have inherited old photos from a parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other family members. You are sure to come across pictures of people you are not able to identify on your own.

Thankfully, it is the time of year when families gather together for holiday festivities giving you the perfect opportunity to name that photo. Even if you had one too many glasses of wine and not enough turkey on Thanksgiving and forgot to bring out that huge box of family photos, it’s not too late! Whether it is a holiday gathering or a future family reunion, now is the ideal time to put your photo ID kit together.

Step 1: Reduce Photo Chaos

  • How Do I Organize My Old Photos in Boxes? If your photos are in boxes, then sort them into groups: years, decades, family members, events etc. The groupings are less important than reducing the chaos. Put the grouped photos into smaller containers. Ziplock bags are perfect because they usually have a label area. Use rubber bands to group similar photos within the same collection. Remember, each photo in a group doesn’t have to be identified once all the people and things in that group have been identified in a few photos.
  • How Do I Organize My Old Photos in Original Envelopes? If photos are still in their original envelopes, try to determine dates (often printed on packaging or back of photo), event or place and who, in general terms. Write this information on the envelope.
  • How Do I Organize My Old Photos in Albums? If photos have made it into albums odds are good that some form of identification has been done, at the very least a date or place will most like be on the back of the photo. Go through the albums and add sticky notes to pages of photos you cannot identify. This will make it easier to access them.

Step 2: Create a Family Tree 

Create a family tree as far back as you think your photos go. It will be simpler to create a family tree for each branch of your family. This will help you to focus in on your family before the event and enable you to jar memories when necessary. Ancestor.com  is a great place to start; print your family tree to keep handy. Maybe even print a few copies to share.

Step 3: Make a Family & Friend List

Create separate list of various family members and friends for easy identification. Remember, a little prep will go a long when trying to engage other people’s memories. This is also a good time to think about future projects with beloved family members in their senior years. Whether you have a grandparent who immigrated here from Europe during World War II or has 50 years worth of family and life stories to share, consider hiring a personal historian to help you capture their memories in a book, video, or both. 

Step 4: Tools for Identifying Old Photos

Hit your favorite office supply store and purchase the following:

  • Photo pens, e.g., Zig photo signature pens. The ink from these types of pen dries instantly, will not dent the photo, and is permanent.
  • Two- to three-inch square Sticky® pads
  • Bag (or ball) of rubber bands
  • Zippered bag to hold pens, Sticky® pads, and rubber bands
  • Clipboard to hold your family tree flowcharts and provide a place to write on when identifying your photos
  • Satchel to carry your photo ID gear

Step 5: A Little Polite Prep  

Alert your host or hostess that you hope to engage family and friends in identifying family photos during the gathering. Then alert all attendees in the group via friendly phone calls, emails, or texts to let them know you are hoping to identify some family photos and would appreciate any help with your mission. Encourage all attendees to bring their photos they might have that need to be identified.


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