What’s a photo without the story?

Who is this saucy young woman? Don’t know? Don’t care?

She looks like fun, though, doesn’t she?

What if you found this photo in a bin at Goodwill? For sale on eBay?

Would you buy it? Would you feel vaguely sad that somebody got rid of it, and move on?

What if you found her in your parents’ stuff and didn’t know who she was?

Would you keep, or toss? Would you try to find the story behind the photo?

My paternal grandparents Archie Raymond THORNTON & Hazel Islery CLAY on their wedding day in 1925.

Let me introduce you to Hazel Islery Clay Thornton, my paternal grandmother and namesake. Sadly, she died when my dad was 16. Thus, also sadly, I never got the chance to know her. But I did feel, in a way, like I met her when I saw this photo for the first time. I’d seen photos of her older self, but none of her younger self until a couple of years ago. There’s more to her story than I will probably ever know, and just looking at the photo begs questions — What beach is this? How old was she? Who took the photo? — but I’m happy for the chance to know this much: She was kind. She was happy. She was fun-loving. My dad adored her.

And what are names and dates without photos?

Here are the basics, and screenshots of a couple of census records I’ve found:

Hazel Islery Clay Thornton: b. 16 Jun 1906, Richmond, VA, d. 10 Jul 1950, Los Angeles, CA

Here is Hazel, age 3, living with her parents and little brother, in Richmond, VA in 1910:


To me, this census record is almost as good as a photo, but I can understand if it’s not quite as meaningful to you.

Here she is living with her husband and two children (including my dad, age 6) in Los Angeles in 1940.


These facts are so much more interesting with a photo or two to go with them, aren’t they?

Interest in genealogy is increasing

You may know, because I mention it often, that genealogy is the second most popular hobby in America, after gardening. But did you know that it’s the second most Googled topic on the internet, after pornography?!?! I have to imagine this includes keyword searches such as “Ancestry”, “Family Tree”, “Heritage”, and “Org4life Family History Research Services”, just as searchers are presumably rather specific when Googling up their porn. (Don’t worry, we won’t dwell on that.)

Such are the tidbits I pick up at conferences, the most recent one being the 10th anniversary celebration (and 7th annual conference) of the Association of Professional Photo Organizers (APPO). Happy birthday APPO, and congratulations to founder Cathi Nelson!

I was lucky enough this year that conference was held in Bernalillo, New Mexico, at the gorgeous Tamaya resort, just 20 miles north of my house. In addition to meeting up with organizing colleagues, and learning about new photo organizing techniques and resources, it gave me a chance to reflect on what photos have to do with my primary interest: genealogy.

Most photo organizers do not do genealogy research. But many of them help genealogists organize their photos. So, it delighted me to see a session offered this year called “Adding Genealogy as a Service”, presented by Caroline Guntur, The Swedish Organizer. Several colleagues asked why I was attending this session, if I already offer genealogy research services to clients. Indeed, only a handful of us raised our hands when asked who the genealogists were in the room. Well, it’s because I only know a handful of other genealogy organizers, and I wanted to hear what Caroline had to say! And the first thing she said was, “What’s a photo without the story?”

So, no, I didn’t learn much in terms of methods and resources that I didn’t already know about, but still, the session inspired me. Listening to Caroline reminded me how much more I have to do in terms of sharing my family research with my family. Not to mention the contents of Mom’s Boxes! And made me realize I would like to add more client photos (photos they give me, and photos I find online to surprise them with) to the genealogy stories I tell with words and dates. It’s one thing to add local and global historical facts to give perspective to an ancestor’s story, and to glean their occupation and other details about their way of life from the documents I find. But photos really bring the story to life, don’t you think?

Who are these people, anyway?

So many people throw photos away because they don’t know the people in them. And the organizer in me agrees: Toss! I even offer a Photo Clutter Flow Chart to help you figure out which photos are clutter and what to do with them. But the genealogist in me says – Hold on a minute! When was this photo taken? Whose house is this? Maybe we can figure out who these people are with just a bit of research.

Family photos and stories help children grow up feeling more secure and feeling like they know where they fit into this big world. Sharing photos and family stories make us all feel connected. As humans, we all have so much more in common than we have differences.

I told Caroline I was going to write a blog post about what genealogy has to do with photo organizing. She replied, “Like everything?” Exactly!

Do you have unidentified people in your photos?

Want some help figuring out who they might be?

Do you have a story to share about your own such photos?

Please join the conversation in the comments below!

Copyright 2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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  1. I agree that interest in genealogy is growing. I just ran into someone recently who is building a business in this… she is a friend, and I had no idea. I’m glad that people who have the passion and skill can bring family photos to life. Nice to know there are options!

  2. This is a very interesting article. You are right, without the stories behind them, many photos are a mystery. I was lucky enough to have a distant cousin who wrote stories to go along with some family photos when he was doing genealogy research. It was really nice to learn more about the people such as where they lived, how old they were, their occupation, how married couples met, etc. These photos and stories told so much more than just a name and death and birth date could on a family tree.

  3. Great information! A big project but so worth it. I have a wall of old family photos (copies of originals) in my dining room. I put names of people and relationship to our family on the back, because my kids won’t know who these people are and then they lose their importance. Also on the wall is a family tree, so they can relate the photos to the tree.
    Great advice in this post.

  4. You are so right! I’m doing genealogy on my family, I have loads/tons of photos we’ve taken over the years (digital and print) AND I do digital scrapbooking. My photos are the bedrock of everything I love. This article was fascinating. Thanks!

  5. My two passions, genealogy and photos!
    Working identifying people in the boxes of photos we inherited from my mother-in-law and mother when they passed away. No one else wanted them!?!?!
    Since both my husband and I are actively research our families, it actually helps us to identify who people are and where the photos may have been taken.
    We share all of our findings in family facebook groups. Photos actually get more family members to comment and share their stories with each other in the groups. Wonderful to see.

    • Thanks for your comment. I love hearing about the different ways families share their photos and family history with each other.

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