Copyright Ian D. Richardson Email:


(First published in Family Tree magazine, August 2014. Original article can be seen here)

An old photograph led family historian Ian Richardson to write a book that is now being turned into a feature film, but he wonders whether family photographs will survive the digital age.

"More means less" is a truism that applies to many areas of life - but never more so than with present-day digital photography.

It is safe to estimate that billions of digital photographs are taken around the world each day, but almost none will ever become part of a family history archive. They are here today and gone tomorrow.

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from which the results were treasured.

The photographs from these sessions were archive quality and became proud possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

We must all know friends and family who indiscriminately fire away with their digital cameras and smartphones with the enjoyment being for the moment.

Some of these photographic efforts are emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets. They are very rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or put in a frame or even a photo album.

The irony is that the technical quality of the pictures taken on digital cameras and smart phones is often exceptionally high, but not by the time they are transferred to the social media.

This takes me onto another bugbear: identification of photographs.

A common reluctance to identify "the who, the where and the when" on a photograph can be the result of modesty, but it is often down to a failure to understand that memories soon become blurred.

All my saved photographs are identified, usually with a caption added when I process them through my picture editing software.

This is something that has often attracted ridicule from my family and friends. I would be told "But we know all that!"

"Well, you know that now," I would respond, "but you probably won't remember the date in a matter of months, you will be a bit hazy about the location in a few years, and a few years after that you won't be entirely sure who all the people are."

Ten years or so ago, during a visit to my aged mother in Australia, we found a box of old photographs in a wardrobe.

It was a rich goldmine of family memories, but almost none of the pictures bore any identification.

My mother and I working our way through the collection, using a soft pencil to write names, and where possible, locations and approximate dates on the back of each one.

Had my mother not had such a good memory for people and places, the historical value of many of the photographs would have been lost.

My eye was caught by a family group photograph taken in a studio in Melbourne in 1914 around the time the First World War was getting underway.

The group included a woman I had never seen before.

My mother identified her as my Great Aunt Florence "Florrie" Cox, and under cross-examination, she reluctantly revealed that Florrie had been an Australian Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and had been the victim of a terrible scandal that had shamed her family and the church.

Arthur & Amelia Cox family

This photograph was to lead to my late-life career change from BBC broadcast journalist to screenwriter and author.

My mother's evasiveness over what had happened to Great Aunt Florrie prompted me to begin an investigation that lasted the best part of 10 years.

What I had originally thought would be a marginal family history episode was transformed into a book, God's Triangle, and a film deal.

The point I am trying to make here is that had my mother not had such a strong long-term memory, that old photograph would never have been identified and the fascinating story of God's Triangle would never have been told.

While I fear for family photographic histories, all is not lost.

New and cheap printing techniques have emerged in recent years as a benefit of digitisation.

It is now possible with fairly basic computer skills to design a photobook that can be printed by a commercial company for as little as £10, although £40 is a reasonable expectation for larger books with hard covers.

Photobooks have an advantage over the old photographic albums in that the photos do not become unstuck and fall out over time.

That is at least one positive aspect - and an important one - of an otherwise distressing consequence of today's shoot-from-the hip mass digital photography.

So, get cracking on your photobook, and remember to identify your photographs. Talk to your older relatives about the pictures in your family history archive. You may be surprised at the gems from the past that they have tucked away and one day your descendants will be very grateful.

Ian Richardson's book, God's Triangle, is available as a paperback or ebook here:


Arthur & Amelia Cox family