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Genealogy research tip: old photos and UGPs (unidentified genealogy people)

Posted by Ian Lamont on

A customer wrote in with a great question: What should be done with old photos with no names, and the people who might know the faces have already passed away?

I have a name for unknown folks on faded black-and-white photos or old tintypes: unidentified genealogy people (UGP). Here's one from our collection:

Unknown genealogy people photo

Some UGPs may be direct ancestors, others may be people from side branches. There may be some UGPs who married into the family, or friends of the family.

You may not know who they are ... but it's so hard to throw them away. What if that old photo is the only surviving image of your great-great-great grandmother Ophelia? That's potentially an important artifact of your family history!    
 
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. You could try posting some of the UGP photos to your Facebook page and seeing if any cousins or relatives have ideas. Before doing this, perform a little detective work to highlight some clues that might be useful. Does a vehicle, hairstyle, or uniform place the photo in a certain period of time? Is there a building in the background that might indicate the location? 

Group photos are often uninspiring, but they may be helpful. If one person can be matched in the group, that can provide clues about who the other people might be, such as classmates from a certain school, colleagues from a certain workplace, or old Army buddies. Group photos may also appear in reverse image search results if someone else has uploaded a copy to the Internet. The following video shows how to get started with reverse image search:

   

As for what to do with shoeboxes filled with old photos, there is only so much space available to store them. At a certain point, it may be necessary to digitize everything (using a good photo scanner) and decide the important ones to keep among the UGPs.

I would retain the portraits, and put some basic notes on the back including what side of the family they came from. That could be a clue for another researcher down the road, or when some future technology gives new insights into your UGPs. However, old vacation photos I would probably toss.


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