Captioning Photographs So They Don’t Appear to Come From Heaven


I’ve used this photograph as an illustration for blog posts before, but I’ve altered my caption and hopefully improved it.

While I understand metadata and how that can be incorporated into a digital image, I’m a firm believer in including that information on the actual photograph itself. Images get “copied and pasted” into other graphics programs, file transfers don’t work correctly; and some people have no idea what metadata is, let alone how to find it. Putting identifying information on the actual image itself facilitates use of the photograph by others who may come across it.

In this undated picture, I’ve identified the individuals from personal knowledge, included the approximate date of the photograph, mentioned where it was taken, indicated when the digital image was made, and mentioned who has the original photograph. In this version, I have left out the name of the current owner of the photograph. Well it really hasn’t been left out. Anyone familiar with the family would know that in 2015 Ralph Neill only had one living niece, so the person has essentially been identified.

There’s no discussion of “how” I know who is in the picture or where it was taken. Identifying my mother and myself should be self-explanatory. How I know it was my Uncle Ralph’s home is probably too long to include in the photograph, but the fact that we celebrated family Christmases there until I was about five or six years old would certainly be something worth writing up in my research notes.

If the identification was made by someone else or handwriting on the back, then I should include that. The image of the handwriting would be something good to include along with the text that I have added.

Dropped from Heaven?

It is frustrating to see a digital image of a photograph on a website or in an online tree with nary an iota of a clue as to how the “publisher” of the photo came to find it. I don’t expect a detailed chronology of where the picture has been every year since it has been taken. But it would be nice to know if the photograph was found in a collection of family photos owned by a descendant of the individuals pictured, was found in a scrapbook purchased at an auction, etc. If the person in the picture is someone of whom I already have pictures, then I have a comparison.

But if I have no other pictures of the person identified and then one “appears” online in digital format sans provenance, I am left wondering:

how do they know it is who they say it is?

There’s a tree at that has a picture of an ancestor of mine who died about ten years after the Civil War. Several of us have been researching this ancestor since the mid-1980s. None of us had ever located a picture of this ancestor. None of us were even aware a picture of this ancestor existed. That does not mean a picture does not exist. My cousins and I are human and could have easily failed to locate such a picture.

Then, as if by magic, a picture of this ancestor appeared in an online tree at The picture would have had to have been taken by the early 1870s. Could it be my ancestor? Yes. Do I want it to be my ancestor? Yes.  Do I believe it is my ancestor?


The original submitter did not answer my inquiry about the picture. I made it clear that I didn’t want the original. I simply wondered (in a tactful and polite email) where the picture came from because I had never seen one before and I was very glad that the submitter had shared it. I was just curious where she had located it. I offered to share with her additional information I had on the family that was not in her online tree.

No answer.

Not a peep.

The submitter is not dead and not inactive as she had logged in to her tree acount a few days before I contacted her and had also logged in to her account after I contacted her. I only checked once just to make certain she was still actively online. I was not trying to be a stalker.

My concern is that the lack of a response is telling.



If you don’t know how to add these images to your own digital images, it’s one of the two topics discussed in my recent webinar on “Citing Digital Images and Creating Colorful Pedigree Charts,” which can be downloaded immediately for only $5.50.


11 thoughts on “Captioning Photographs So They Don’t Appear to Come From Heaven

  1. Actually, I wouldn’t jump to too many conclusions about the lack of response just yet. is notorious for not delivering private messages. Also some people may not be as knowledgeable about all the Ancestry features and she may not know she has a message if it was delivered. Plus, there are times when “life interrupts” and she may see the notification that she has a message, but just hasn’t prioritized looking at it yet. How long ago did you send it?

  2. Here is another caution. I found a picture of my ancestor on Ancestry with no information. So I wrote the member asking it he would kindly tell me where the picture came from. He wrote back saying it wasn’t a real picture of my ancestor, just a “placeholder.” He had these placeholders for many people in his tree. I went back later and, to his credit, he had identified the pictures as placeholders so others wouldn’t make the same mistake I did.

    • I’ve seen several who have used flags as pictures of individuals, often flags of the country in which they were born.

      • I’ve done that on my off line tree in FTM. I wanted a visual to see where they were in my line and where they were from. I also did a small spreadsheet of those foreign born, so I can do more research on them.

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