What does this photo say to you?

I found this photo recently while going through some of my grandfather’s heritage photos that I scanned for digital back-up.  It’s a charming photo, but it raises so many questions for me.  Who are these people?  When and where was the picture taken?  Does it represent a significant occasion?  Unfortunately, there was nothing written on the back of the photo, or in an accompanying note, to answer these questions.  I’m intrigued, and I want to know more.

If my ancestor had written that the woman is my great-grandmother, she had just received her first camera, and was taking photos of my great-grandfather and her brother, the photo would have so much more meaning for me.  My great-grandmother passed away before I was born, but I’m told she was known for always taking a camera with her when she visited family and friends, and I like to think that my love of recording family history in photographs originated with her and was passed down to me through my grandfather’s and my mother’s love of photography.

Click to view larger image

When we describe what’s going on in a photo it is called journaling.  It’s telling the “who, what, when, where” about a photo and, just as importantly, the “why” about a photo.  Without this journaling, key information is missing.

Now, think of the photos you’ve taken recently and imagine your children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren looking through those photos years from now.  Will they know the names of the people in the photos?  Will they know the occasion, the emotions, and the story behind the photo?  Not likely. . . . unless you have taken the time to journal, or record the details.

So, how should you do the journaling?

If you are organizing photo prints:

  • Do — Jot notes on the back of the photo, but only with a photo safe journaling pencil.
  • Do — Write on a “post-it” note and affix to the back of the photo.
  • Do – Include journaling alongside your photos in albums or scrapbooks.
  • Do – Journal in your own handwriting, even if you don’t like your writing; your descendants will appreciate seeing it.
  • Do – organize your photo prints by category in a photo-safe storage box.
  • Don‘t – Write on the back of photos with ink or permanent marker (some types will entirely fade over time, and others will rub off on accompanying photos).
  • Don’t – Phrases such as “cute baby,” “isn’t she sweet,” “a beautiful day,” etc. are seen way too often in photo albums.  They won’t mean a thing to your descendants.  It’s much better to say, “Sam, at 7 months,” or “the first day of sunshine after 10 straight days of rain”.
  • Don’t – Write on the back of photos with a regular pencil (it may leave an impression on the photo side, and will fade over time).

If you are working with digital photos, certain information about that image is recorded automatically when the image is taken, and other information can be inserted by you into the image’s metadata.    

  • Do — Be sure you have the date set correctly in your camera, as this is the date that will be recorded on your image’s metadata.
  • Do – Change the date in the metadata if the image is one that was scanned from a print (the metadata will default to the date the print was scanned).
  • Do – Insert “keywords” or “tags” into the metadata of your images.
  • Do – Organize your digital images into virtual albums that provide a feature for journaling, or describing, the image.
  • Do – Print your favorite images.
  • Do – Create photo books using your digital images, and insert your journaling in text boxes alongside your images to tell your story.
  • Do – Use a cloud-based service (such as ForeverTM) for safe storage of your images, and to share your images with family.
  • Don’t – Import photos into your computer and neglect to organize them.

Journaling is important.  Without it, a photo is just a picture.  With it, a photo becomes an interesting or meaningful story.  I challenge you to make a practice of journaling as you are organizing your collection of photo prints or as you organize your digital images.  Trust me – your family will appreciate that you spent the time to do it.

— Danielle Studer, Professional Photo Organizer


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