“How in the world did you find those great old photos?”
“I wish my family had photos like that.”
“I’m so jealous, all our family photos were lost in the flood.”
We all hear comments like this from time to time, and there really isn’t a good answer to them besides that well-practiced air of mystery we all try to perfect. Revealing the magic trick behind your finds just doesn’t do all the hard work justice. The response to seeing how the magic is done is usually underwhelming. You also could have just been plain old lucky and found your grandmother’s scrapbook – something we’ve all had to sheepishly confess to from time to time.
Your relatives really don’t want to know the techniques you use in your craft. Sadly, it generally bores them to tears. However they do love and appreciate those photos!
Well, to those of us who love genealogy, it is all about technique. I’ll now let you in on the very secret methods I personally employ in my genealogical detective casework to find photographic treasures. Are you ready for the big reveal?
I Talk to Second Cousins
Second cousins hold the magic.
Second cousins have all the best photos. All those great-grandparents who we thought never had their photos taken, the copies of photos that were destroyed in the fire, the photos we thought were left behind when the family left with only the clothing on their backs. Yes, those. For some families, those photos may really be lost, which is sad. But it’s possible that there are people out there who do have copies of photos you don’t know about, people who you never knew about – your second cousins, or better yet, your parent’s second cousins. They’re the ones who may have those precious photo albums.
My second great-grandfather, Benno, was camera shy. I really didn’t think a photo of him existed anywhere in the world. When I finally tracked down one of my father’s second cousins in Brazil, what did I find hanging in his front room? Not one, but two photos of Benno! Right there on the wall in plain sight. My newly-found cousin was astonished at my reaction, as my jaw literally hit the floor.
“Why wouldn’t I have a photo of my great grandfather?” he asked.
That’s the key. Second cousins share great-grandparents. And some of their photos might also have the entire family, which means one of your grandparents at an early age!
When I showed that photo to another second cousin, he said, “Oh, I have a photo that looks like that but I didn’t know who anyone was.” He then sent me a slightly beat-up photo taken on the same day: you can tell by the hats!
It turns out that the mysterious Benno was not at all camera shy. I now have at least seven photos of him.
A Piece of The Puzzle
Another of my father’s second cousins now lives in London. His mother ended up with all the family photos by way of South Africa. My father had never heard of him, yet there they were – photos of his great-grandparents, grandmother, her siblings, and even second great-grandparents. One of the most interesting discoveries was that up until then, I only had two photos of my second great-grandfather, Emanuel Wolff. This included one that just said, “Emanuel Wolff 1901” on the back. Well, since he died in 1901, I had made up a story in my head about this being the last photo taken of him.
In the collection was another photo that told a great deal more of the story. It was a group shot, and it turned out I literally only had a small piece of the big picture. The notes on the back helped the story take shape. The family was on vacation in the Italian Riviera resort of Pegli. It was winter in March 1901, and the family traveled about 1,200 km south by train from their Berlin home to get some much needed warmth and sun. Emanuel died in December of 1901, some nine months later. So, it was not the last photo after all. It’s a completely different story, and one that I could not have heard without finding that magical second cousin.
Not to say that first cousins are a lost cause. They’re lovely people. You may have known them all your life. You probably know all their stories and photos already. If you don’t, well that’s really your first step: talk to your family. Actually, my motto is if all else fails, talk to your family, but you get the idea. This will also help you fill out the family tree so that you have a complete list of second cousins to trace.
It never fails that I finally track someone down, only to have my aunt tell me, “Of course I know Ronnie; we used to go to the movies together.” How does my family not understand that I am a genealogist?
Second cousins are really close relatives in a genealogical sense. They are the children of your parent’s first cousins. However, they often get lost in the shuffle, especially if you go up one generation and work on your parent’s second cousins. It is much easier to lose touch with your grandparent’s first cousins, whose children would be your parent’s second cousins. Don’t you dare refer to second cousins as distant cousins. Good grief, I have fourth cousins I still consider close.
How to approach your second cousins about photos:
- Talk to your own family and get your tree filled out. Be sure to include all your parent’s second cousins by finding all your grandparent’s first cousins. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to look through everyone’s photo collections again.
- Contact your long-lost cousins, and try not to sound like a crazy person. Establish your family credentials. Tell your story before asking any questions.
- Tell them you are looking for photos. Many people are worried about your motivation. Their first instinct is that you want something from them: money. So ease their fears, and tell them right up front what you want from them: copies of photos.
- Share the family tree with them, and share your photos with them. You’ll be amazed at how excited they are to see your boring old photos. Your photos are the ones that they haven’t seen, just as theirs are so special to you. It works both ways. Each person has a small piece of the puzzle, and they discount the pieces they have, simply because they have them.
- The internet makes sharing digital photos across the world so easy. It’s truly an amazing time to live. If you don’t have a scanner, use something like Shoebox from Ancestry to turn your phone into a scanner.
- Don’t get offended if they refer to you as a distant cousin. Try to repeat long-lost cousin as often as possible.
Second cousins may have more than photos. They could have juicy stories, scrapbooks, paperwork, letters, family lore, and much more. You’ll be surprised at how much you have in common with them. They are indeed family after all. Who would have guessed you’d have so much to talk about.
At the end of the day, my truthful answer to “How did you find those photos?” is a tired smile, and, “Legwork, lots of legwork.”