Photographs as a Research Source for Historical Writing

Photographs can be an inspiration can be rich with details, but we tend to pass them over as a superficial source that give no more than a vague sense of a time or place. Take a closer look. Photographs can be loaded with emotion, information, sensory and concrete details—all the good things you want for writing that resonates with life.

What Are the Circumstances of This Family?

Mike & Jane Manson family, Cortes Island, BC.  How much could you have guessed about this family's circumstances from this photo? Courtesy Museum at Campbell River. #9358.

Mike & Jane Manson family, Cortes Island, BC. How much can you surmise about this family’s circumstances based on this photo? Courtesy Museum at Campbell River, 9358.

In one of our writing classes Annette and I invited students to speculate about the details of a Victorian family, based on this portrait. The results were astonishing. They deduced the obvious: this family was not wealthy, though their clothing had been carefully made, showing at least a modicum of success. Our students posed questions—and guessed at some truths. What, for example, is familial relationship of the young woman on the right? She’s much older than the children and the older couple, who are perhaps the parents of the children. With nothing more than what they saw here students guessed the man–the father– worked as either a merchant of politician. They wondered about the social cue of his fist place on the mystery woman’s shoulder.

The photograph is of the Mike and Jane Manson family of Cortes Island. Mike was, indeed, both a merchant and politician! The mystery young woman was the only surviving child among their first four children. (The rest died of diphtheria within months of each other.) They went on to have what they called their second family, which include two sets of twins. The Mansons lived simply in their rural island community, where most people lived off the land and sea.

Pull out your family photos, even the ones with just a name or two–or nothing–scribbled on the back. Probe those photos for details. What do their clothes tell you? What about the setting? How have the people positioned themselves–and what does that tell you about family dynamics? What was happening just before the photo was taken; and just afterwards?