There is an old saying: “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure.”  However, when it comes to a family elder’s treasure; those items may not necessarily be a descendant’s treasure.  To a younger generation, those items might just be considered old furniture, old lamps, old tools, etc.  I found this out recently when my mother passed away suddenly.  During the funeral planning and after, we three children had to consider what we wanted out of the house – we were mostly interested in small things like mementos from vacations or some items that had been handed down through the family. 

The financial planning had been taken care of years ago and all of us were satisfied with how the will was written – there would be no contesting of the will.  When the discussion came to large items like furniture, none of us were interested.  As adults we already had children of our own, and our homes were fully furnished in our own styles.  Since our mother’s furniture did not match ours, there was no desire for any of the pieces.  Even the grandchildren who were just getting started on their homemaking adventures were not interested in the style that was comfortable for a person aged 85.

Like many families experiencing these generational events, one big question presents itself – what happens to all the photographs?  In the early days when photos were still just black and white, there was usually just one or two copies made because of expense. 

  • “We take photographs as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.” (Katie Thurmes).
  • “This is what I like about photographs. They are proof that once, even for a heartbeat, everything was perfect.” (Unknown).
  • “Photographs are not just about who or what is in the image; it is a moment of time captured to reflect on in the future.” (unknown).

In today’s digital world of social media we post images of family, friends and events of the past – with no back story of what was taking place at the time or even who is in the picture.  Then someone scrolls down through their news feed and clicks the like, heart, care, or wow emoji and does not even comment or ask about the image, moving onto the next in line. 

I see this regularly on my Facebook feeds – pictures posted and the poster no longer knows the individual(s) in the photograph.  It becomes just an image of someone from the past – no story to tell because the story has been lost to time too.  Once in a while I will see an image with the back story and it is so interesting and fascinating to learn about someone or something –“proof that once, even for a heartbeat, everything was perfect” – or maybe not perfect, but something was happening and people today knew who, what and where it was happening – how exciting to read these postings.  Now the big question, will the next generation remember that story, or will the image just become another image with names and stories lost to history?

A person could say, “Awesome family portrait!” or “Wow! That is a stunning family photograph!”, or even, “Love that beautiful family portrait!”  These are some of the things I comment back to people who share an image.  If the poster also shares the story about the image, I always thank them for taking the time to share.  Many times the stories and images will remind me of a similar experience in my past or my family’s past.  When no story is present, I usually comment that it is sad that the story or the names of the people have been lost to history.

As our elders pass on and leave behind boxes of images – it can be frustrating to sit there and look at strangers staring back at you.  I have read many stories of people who have been in this situation.  They look at a brother, sister or cousin sitting next to them and ask, “Do you know who this is?” 

If your parents or grandparents are still living, now is a great time to get started on documenting those old photographs.  Spend an afternoon revisiting your family history, writing down everything your elders can remember about people and events.  You will find that many elders in the family have photos stashed in boxes or photo albums that have not been seen for many years. Those photographs were taken for a reason at the time.  Once brought out into the open the images will evoke huge amounts of memories and stories to share.  The images were expensive back then and held real personal meaning to the individual who saved it over all these years - these may be the only ones in existence now.

Today people pull out the cell phones and take multiple images of a person doing something.  Will they remember who those people were, where they were, and why they were there?  If a person begins documenting important event photos now, their descendants can enjoy the images and stories later and be relieved from asking that hard question: “Do you know who this is?”


 Michael Hawthorne

Founder and Chief Guide to Saving the Past


  • Michael Hawthorne said:

    HI Lisa,

    I am sorry for your loss of family history. I too have experienced family members who take family historical stuff and then it seems to disappear, never to be seen again. I remember seeing images of my grandfather when he was a teenager – I know the uncle who got the images, but nobody will admit it or share :-(

    November 02, 2021

  • Lisa McEwan said:

    unfortunately too late for me. I organized my maternal grandmothers photo’s into albums when I was a teenager( 40 years ago). I had no interest in who was in the pictures. my uncle took the album’s when she passed. he passed about 10 years ago. no one knows what happened to them. ugh, I wish I would have taken them when she passed.

    October 03, 2021

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