Maureen Taylor, Photo Detective | Jan 29, 2018

Take the Time to Discover the Story, Save the Story, and Tell the Story

What Do You See in a Photo?

On the surface this is a simple family snapshot. My mom and dad are in the middle, and it’s their wedding day. My mother’s oldest sister stands to her left, and my mother’s niece is to the right of my father. It captures a happy time.


The houses, the cars, and the people all help date the picture, but photographs have a way of transcending time. They act as visual reminders of what’s come before us, or they freeze-frame moments from our own lives.

The really important thing to remember about a picture is that not only does it tell a story, it acts as a trigger for stories as well.

But What’s the Story?

As the Photo Detective, I find family history in photographs. Old ones, new ones, and everything in between. It’s all about rediscovering the answers to the age-old questions of who, what, when, where, and why—the same elements of good storytelling I learned back in grade school. These questions are the crucial building blocks for tale telling.

When I meet with clients, it’s a sharing of information. They provide what they know, and I tell them what I see. The sweet spot is what comes from that collaboration. It can get emotional when someone suddenly realizes that the image they’ve shown me is a picture of an ancestor they’ve been seeking, or when an image of a person in an unusual costume reveals where their ancestors lived in another country.

Each photo is different. Your photos and my photos are tangible, but the stories within them are different because the people are unique.

Bring in the Senses

It doesn’t take only words to tell a story. It takes your five senses too. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell can turn an otherwise plain sentence into something a reader can relate to.

Describe what’s happening in the image, but also include the senses in what you’re describing, for example a happy family gathering and the sound of your great-grandfather’s laugh as he told a joke. For the picture of your backyard, describe how the lilac tree in the background smelled or what your grandmother’s special cake tasted like the day the picture of it was taken.

Don’t restrict yourself to telling stories with words alone. I’ve profiled my father’s mother, Eliza Jane Wilson, in a video that narrates her life with a few fun facts and music thrown in too. The tune in the year of her birth, Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow, was irresistible as a soundtrack to an image of her as a toddler.

Your story can be long or short. Microfiction is a fashionable new type of storytelling. It’s caption length and you can use it as a 280-character tweet or as a microblog of less than 200 words. Short form writing makes you boil down your mini tale to what’s important.

This brings us back to my photo. It’s August 29, 1953, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Of all the people in the photo, my mother is the last one alive today. Even the baby my aunt is about to give birth to is gone. Mom is the final witness to this day. Her memories are poignant. Her oldest sister, pregnant with my cousin Mike, was old enough to be her mother. My aunt’s oldest daughter stands next to my dad. Only 10 years separated my mother from her niece. Those are the facts. Those details are the spine of the story; who, what, where, when, and why.

This black-and-white-snapshot is so much more than photo chemicals and paper. It’s a family history moment, one that made me possible. It signifies a branch on my family tree, the junction of two pedigrees. It’s also a trigger for storytelling.

Try This

Show a photo to someone in your family. Ask them what they see. If they were alive when it was taken, then ask them what was going on. If more than one person is still living, show them the image too.

Here’s what will happen.

The relative you ask what they see will tell about details, the clues present in the image.

While the relatives you ask about an image of a moment they remember will each tell you about the day, but they likely will tell you different parts of the same story.

Storytelling through photo clues is powerful. Life changing might be too strong, but then again, maybe not. If you learn something new about your ancestors that you didn’t know before, then that one picture will stand out from the rest.

Take the Time to Discover the Story, Save the Story, and Tell the Story.

Seeing these people and thinking about her wedding gave my mother a chance to talk about more than her wedding plans and how she met my dad. Her mind clicked, and I learned about her childhood with a much older sister and how her maid of honor, her niece, was one of her closest friends. The family dynamics are there in the image; it just took a moment to learn about these folks from a time before me.

The power of an image can’t be underestimated. Images connect us to our past. They belong to your family history.

Photos reveal themselves in layers. You study the clues and talk to family, but every time you look at it again or show it to a different family member you might learn something new. One thing leads to another.

As far as this simple snapshot goes, there is one thing I still don’t know. Who took it? I’m thinking it was my uncle, since his family flanks the newly married couple. Mom might know. It’s an opportunity to get her talking again about these people.

Find the Time

Don’t let those images lie in boxes or albums unrecognized for their value to your identity and your family history. Old photos contain clues about the photographer, the fashion, the picture format, and more. I can help you discover the past that’s present in your images. It’s my specialty!

All I need in order to help you is a photo and whatever you know about it. Some photos come without a story attached. That’s OK too. Together we can discover how you came to own that image and reveal its mysteries.

Watch me live on Facebook and follow me on Instagram—it’s photos 24/7. I’ve found my passion, and it’s pictures and helping my clients learn about their family from the clues in them: the strange hat that pinpoints where their ancestors lived; odd clothing that signifies employment; a group picture that does the extraordinary—it documents their ancestors at a point in time.

Join me in this photo discovery zone at

Maureen Taylor, Photo Detective

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