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How Do You Feel About Sharing Photos of Your Ancestors?

Caroline Nunge
Caroline Nunge, great grandmother of Marian Pierre-Louis, born 1878 in what is now Baerenthal, Moselle, France

Most genealogists tend to have pretty strong feelings, especially when it comes to genealogy and their ancestors! One topic that brings up a lot of emotions is photographs of our ancestors. Some people have them and others don't. Some people are willing to share them and others won't.

I have to admit that I have done a complete flip in how I feel about owning and sharing ancestral photos.

When I started out in genealogy many years ago I didn't have a whole lot of ancestral photos. My mom had a portait of my great grandparesnts, Jesse Forest Silver and Margaret Jane George. But I never saw much on my paternal side except for my grandparents. My great grandparents remained faceless to me.

When I did find photos I had a tendency to covet them and secret them away. I made it a policy that I wouldn't share family photos online in my blog posts or social media. Part of how I felt was that I wanted to protect my ancestors from unethical commercial entities. Those groups that would steal photos online and then sell them as stock photography to be used as advertisements. I couldn't think of a worse thing happening to my ancestors.

But I also wasn't keen on sharing with distant cousins either. I kept thinking that I was going to write and publish a family history and I would save the photos for the book.

At some point things started to change. I started a website for my Edwards ancestors. I was touched at how distant cousins from far flung branches were willing to share photos for inclusion on the website. The next big change came after my Dad's brother died. During the process of downsizing, my aunt decided to pass on to us the boxes of family photos they had stored in their basement. I was visiting my Dad one weekend and he said "I have something to show you." He started pulling out photo after photo of his ancestors. I saw my great greandparents Seeber Edwards and Sarah Estella Gurney for the first time. I was dumbfounded. For the very first time I was looking at their faces. They were suddenly real people with real features and family resemblances.

More recently I have hit a milestone birthday. That has changed my perception of everything. Instead of wanting to keep everything to myself or to worry about that book that may never get published, I am suddently more concerned with making sure that everyone I am related to has access to our family history and all of our family photos. The way I see it now, our family history, memories and photos have a better chance of surviving, particularly in the digital age, if they are widely shared.

Another thing happened as well. I was on a large database site looking at family trees for my maternal line when I came across a tree that had a photo of our original immigrant ancestor who came over from the Czech Republic. I had never seen a photo of this ancestor before and never imagined that one had even existed. If this 3rd cousin of mine had not publicly shared the photo I would never have seen my ancestor. I am so grateful that he did.

It was a very special moment to see the face of my immigrant ancestor. It got me thinking that everyone who is a descendant of this person might feel the same way when seeing the photo. Everyone should have the same opportunity to get to know their ancestors. And it was at this point that I decided that photos of our ancestors need to be shared. 

There are perhaps some guidelines we can follow when sharing that will make things easier. When sharing online in public trees, blog posts or social media perhaps use a low resolution (such as 72dpi) so that photo thieves won't be able to make good quality copies. Even though I post lower resolution copies online, I like to make it known to distant cousins that I am willing to give them higher resolution copies. When sharing directly with close family, either via Dropbox or thumbdrive, I always provide the high resolution copy.

If someone has shared a family photo with you, it's always best to get permission before share it again yourself, particularly online. And always be sure to credit the person who owns the photo.

Beyond that I don't have too many rules.

How do you feel about sharing photos of your ancestors? Any guidelines that you find helpful? Let me know in the comments.


Marian Pierre-Louis is a genealogy professional who specializes in educational outreach through webinars, internet broadcasts and video. Her areas of expertise include house history research, southern New England research and solving brick walls. Marian is the Online Education Producer for Legacy Family Tree Webinars where she produces online genealogy education classes. Once a month you'll find her as the evening host of Legacy Family Tree Webinars. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.



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I was just thinking today that I need to share some photos with another family genealogist, but... I am going to offer them to all the cousins in that line. I found a picture of my great grandfather in someone's Ancestry tree. I was looking at the face of my son. After that, I am motivated to share.

I have always posted the family photos I have on my blog and in my online family trees on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Findmypast, etc. I quickly came to your last conclusion - it's better to share them than have them lost to the dump.

On my father's side, all of my aunts and uncle had the available photos, often for their walls. The one exception is that I have the Civil War era Union Case of Isaac and Lucretia Seaver, my second great-grandparents, which I have photographed and is in my trees. On my mother's side, there are few cousins to enjoy the photos I have - my grandparents and my mother were only children.

My bigger challenge is what to do with my genealogy work for posterity. My current conclusion is to make eBooks, put them on free or subscription sites (e.g., Scribd, Forever, etc.) where they can be found, and add the information to FamilySearch Family Tree.

Michelle, I definitely agree with your suggestion to get permission to post a photo online. Recently a distant cousin posted a photo on a Facebook group. I asked if it was ok for me to add this to my family tree and she had to decline my request because of complicated family history. It always pays to ask even if something has been shared online.

I wrote a book for our Hansen reunion with several pictures for all my cousins years ago, but I had very little on my moms side of our family. I do have her mothers photo album, but none say who they are. I have posted several on Family Search Family Tree that I did know and more and more keep popping up all the time, so I am a big supporter of sharing photos.

I have no blog and have never written anything online nor intended to publish a family story.

In the past I freely gave to all family and all friends any photos I thought they might be interested in. When I asked, "Do you have any old pictures of Gramma?", or "Great Uncle Joe", or "us when we were kids?" they would just reply that they had nothing.

Now my tact has changed a bit. If 'they' show interest in what I have, I ask, "Do you have anything we can trade?" This motivates them to look for something, for anything that might interest me. I am not looking for a balanced exchange and don't care if I give them 10 photos and if all they have is one for me. At least I have advanced my collection, and I am slowly making my tree live with faces and info not just names and dates.

Maybe 'they' will one day publish online, but I don't mind any more. I have certainly benefited from others who have freely shared, and want to do the same for someone else.

I have always shared freely, but lately I have seen family trees that use photos I have posted and feel a little possessive. Not that there is (as far as I know) a way to attribute the photos to the original poster. I will get over it but I wouldn't mind a thank you message. When I download a photo of an ancestor to use in a family tree or blog post I send the person on whose tree I found it a note to thank them. If I get around to posting them in a blog post I will mention where it came from.

I have been in the process of plastering photographs on my blog and on FamilySearch. The bottom line is that houses burn and are subject to natural disasters. I'd rather have someone swipe a photograph from my blog than permanently lose it. Plus, people contact me with information and additional photographs to add to my blog. It's a win, win.

Very interesting topic here & lots to think about. I do share family photos, with close relatives & on my blog. I do think the more relatives that have their photos, the better. We can try to keep their stories alive by sharing what we know.

I remember being shocked the first time I saw a photo of an ancestor in an online tree, that was identical to one I had inherited. It was a studio photograph, so of course copies had been given to various relatives at the time. I was just one of the lucky descendants to have one passed on down to me. As I don't solely own any of my ancestors, I shouldn't think I solely own their image.

I have never understood the attitude of "I found it. I proved it. It's mine!"

I spend time in Photoshop cleaning up photos or scanning negatives that are over 100 years old. I am happy to share but hate it when Ancestry sends me my photo that they have "discovered."

I have always shared photos with family and now on ancestry. Photos are so important to see similar family features from the past on present day family. If you have taken DNA test it is so much more interesting.

I have no problem sharing my photos with family members.
What I object to is when it ends up on pay per view sites and I need permission from the person who posted it or I must pay to look at my own work. I used to want to control the quality/resolution but the low res seems to be the only one to survive through the years.
Notice to Legacy and Ancestry: before you send me a notice that you 'found' something that may interest me, your source pages has the information as to who uploaded it or in the case of Find-A-Grave who created it, do a tiny bit of code to check and do not send me a reminder of how you are making money off of my hard work.

I have no objection to sharing photos, as long as the information is correct. I once gave some photos to one person, who put them on Ancestry, labelled with the wrong names, when this was pointed out, they were not corrected, then another person took them to his tree and so it goes on, that the names with the people are wrong. This then becomes an ongoing piece of information that is not correct.
Bev Connaughton

I think it is important so share family photos and I do my best to do so. I have photos of a lot of my ancestors from my mother's line, but to this day have still been unable to locate anyone with photos of my great grandparents of beyond in my fathers line... I would so love to see them and I look forward to the day when someone might share such a photo.
That said, I always get a shock when I see an image of my ancestors taken from a photo that I know I shared in the family tree of a stranger whom I have never met or passed that photo onto... I understand that my ancestor is their ancestor too but I still find myself feeling quite possessive and protective of that photo and wish they would acknowledge where it came from... :-)

I would much rather share my photos and research than keep everything to myself. Why am I spending so much time on this if I don't pass it on? I don't mind people saving my photos to their trees on Ancestry, but it does bother me when it gets attached to a profile that's full of errors. Still, I believe the better choice is to be generous. Everything we find as researchers is due to someone else making it available.

I have posted some family photos on findagrave and given permission for others to use. BUT I do ask them to tell me they are doing so in case we are related. I was recently given photos of some collateral families because no one wanted them and they hated to just throw them away. My thought is to put them on the findagrave site if they have memorials as I am not familiar with other sites that would post them (and I don't have time to look)!

I am the oldest in my family, my dad is the oldest in his family, and both of his parents are the oldest in their families. So - I am usually the designated recipient of every photo handed down after their deaths. In addition, my maternal grandmother was the oldest in her family! I would feel totally selfish to not share the photos I have acquired by the deaths of my parents and grandparents, especially since I didn’t do anything - other than be born first - to be the recipient of these old photos!!

I welcome suggestions from the author or readers on how to head off this:

1) You post a wonderful picture of your ancestor on your tree.
2) You discover a visitor to your tree has copied your wonderful picture and has reposted it on his tree.
3) You go to his tree and discover that his ancestor happens to have the same name as your ancestor. But his ancestor has nothing at all to do with your family.
4) You email the person and kindly ask him to remove the picture.
5) He ignores your repeated request.

I happily share my treasure of ancestral pictures, many of them given to me by family members who know I will keep them safe and publicly display them wisely. I welcome advice on keeping irresponsible persons from copying and attaching them to wrong people.

Long before the internet, we had a 'Traveling Set' that went from distant cousin, to distant cousin. Each time it came to me (about every 9 or 10 months) I felt guilty because I was a new genealogist & didn't have much, new to share. But I did find a photo of a photo in my Grandmother's things that was of her G-grandparents from before 1860. I had multiple copies made & included them in the box.
Every time the box got to a new person, I got the nicest letters, for sharing. Right then I decided that that might be my purpose in genealogy was to get the photos out! I have 7 generations of photos on nearly every line.

I have put on my on line tree photos to go with as many close family / direct ancestors as I have photos for. I am willing to share as much information as I have about both my ancestors and the extended branching families, and that includes photos. The first time I saw my photos of my parents on a tree related distantly it was a shock. But after a couple of days it was a big :D as a photo helps keep knowledge about them alive and if my photos (usually just head shots cropped from original photos) are of interest to someone else then it is good.

I too hate it however when Ancestry 'discovers' my own photos, whether a shot of people copied originally from my tree or grave shots I have loaded onto Fingagrave.

The copyright of the image is typically NOT owned by the genealogist, so I don't see how anyone can get all righteous about having exclusive use of it unless they took the photograph themselves.

And nobody can protect deceased ancestors from someone using their image, they cannot be harmed, they are dead.

Glad the blogger has come to their senses and realized they can share stuff.

I suggest sharing in the highest resolution possible (but post web friendly sizes) otherwise the risk of the data being lost is higher.

If you are the owner of a photo and are worried about personal photos being shared. Try watermarking them. My son being a computer wiz, was able to put a watermark over some of my photos, that way I know they are mine. Always do a backup copy, as once a watermark is on them, it can not be removed.
Amazing how quickly your information and photos get shared on certain sites. I tend to keep my trees private.

If we don’t share our ancestors can become forgotten, I give and get permission to share. Recently I learned that a photo of my husbands maternal grandmother as teenager, had been identified as his paternal grandmother, I went his family tree a sent a note of correction to those who had saved it, I also noted it in the description., some have thanked me and made their adjustments, some never did anything. I have always felt the importance of being open and to share freely, I don’t own my ancestors or there stories, and decedents are probably to many to count in some cases and I hope that what I have can help one of them get to know their family.

In response to Mark L (14 Oct): I have had a similar experience, where a small branch of my family, complete with the photos which I had added and of which I own the originals, has been added to a tree on MyHeritage with the same names and dates but claimed to be American-born rather than Australian (and yes, I have formal documentation).
I attempted contact but without success, so I guess they're still there - I refused to use MH afterwards. So disappointing!

During World War II, my family was taken away abruptly or forced to flee their homes and estates. We have lost not only material goods but also family archives.
When, relatively recently, I started to create a family tree in MyHeritage and placed the first photos, I soon saw the photos copied by someone unknown to me in another tree. I was amazed that someone dared to use "my" photos. Then, thanks to Smart Match, I saw other photos of my family relatives I had never seen in other trees. Initially I have asked the administrators of these sites if I'm allowed to use their facts but I have rarely received a reply. I decided that if someone "publishes" and does not protect the "privacy" of their Family, I have the right to use information and photos in my tree (however limiting their availability to other people).
We must be aware of the fact that by using the "blessing" of the Internet, we uncover our intimacy shell.

I share and include photos in any stories I write. I have had photos come to me from various sources and have always appreciated them. My husband's mother lost all her photos during the war in Italy so those photos squirreled away in people's albums have been shared over the years. Especially the large group photos that include several generations have been priceless to me. If concerned about sharing online, then do not share online. Photos are only copyrighted for so many years anyway. If very old, that limit is over.

I have begun adding a caption, using text box function, at the bottom of photos shared online. Example: "John Posten, ca 1915, original photo found in box belonging to Daniel Posten, John's youngest son, 2007; shared by Susan Posten Ellerbee, 2019." Detracts a little from the photo but gives the provenance of the photo, at least as far as I know it! Then, when someone copies the photo, they copy the caption and the photo, unless they take time to crop and remove the caption. I keep at least 2 digital copies of the photograph - one without the caption and one with the caption. Information about the photograph has been written on the back with archival quality pens/ pencils. In my blog, I give credit to those cousins who so graciously share old photos with me. "Photo from collection of John David Smith; shared by his granddaughter, Susan Grace Smith Barker, 2017." And, yes, ask permission first!

Thank you for posting this great topic Marian.
We too have reached an age where we realize we must do something with all our wonderful ancestor photos. Our immediate family is not interested in them. At least if they are posted online an interested family member will have access. Like Beverly, Mark L. and others, our concern is these photos being attached to the wrong people in public family trees. One thing I have done when I see an ancestor photo attached incorrectly on an Ancestry tree is to leave a “Comment” on the subject’s profile that it’s the wrong person and who the photo actually is. Comments are public, and an icon is placed on the individual profile to alert others that a comment exists, which anyone can read. This may help if they have ignored your e-mail requests to remove the photo. (Just click the “+ note” icon which opens a window for Tree Tags, Notes and Comments). I don’t think there is any way to keep irresponsible people from copying and attaching photos to wrong people just like you can’t keep them from copying wrong data from one bad tree to the next. With many good trees out there why can’t they copy from an accurate sourced tree or verify photos-Sigh!

I don't mind sharing, like you, it moves me to see an ancestor from years ago. I have many photos from both sides. BUT, I want credit for the photo. I now photo shop the name of the person/people, date and name of my grandmother whose photo album it came from.

Here is something that can go wrong. I shared a photo with a close cousin. It subsequently was shared to another distant cousin. All good BUT there is a comment attached to the photo which contains incorrect information. It is on a site that I do not have a subscription with so I have not authorization to contact that owner. Never correctable??

I have been blessed by a great-grandmother who began a collection of family photos starting with her wedding photo just after my great-grandfather returned home from the Civil War. Her oldest daughter continued the collection and she passed them on to her daughter. Her grandson gave the collection to my grandfather, who in turn blessed me with the gift of the Harper-Swann family photos. Since I have been researching our family genealogy for years, other family members have given me more photos and heirlooms. I really don't consider them mine. I think of myself as a caretaker of the past. One day soon, I will pass them on to the next caretaker. I have scanned them all in 1600 psi .png format (original and enhanced copies) and filed copies in safe places. The originals are filed in archival materials for protection. The heirlooms (jewelry, furniture, keepsakes, Family Bibles, etc.) have been photographed and/or documented with their history. Nothing excites me more than a young family member asking to see “the family stuff.”

I have documented their journey with owner's names, locations, descriptions, relationship, etc.

I am always happy to share photo's when someone asks if I have any because when I started researching my family, I was not enjoying the photo famine I was experiencing..... Since I have been sharing and subsequently did the DNA test I have found many more rellies... Some share some don't.... BUT from the ones who do share, I have had names supplied to identify some photo's I had....


On my father's father's side I have a severely pruned family tree with no cousins closer than 4th cousins (for generations they had only 2 sons and only one married and had kids. I have no idea why but it became a habit - I have but 1 sister and she has never married and guess what I have two kids - but at least I got creative with a daughter and a son :)) As a result I have the family photos back into the 1870s. And imagine my surprise when 4th cousins contact me all excited because I have the only known photo of their father as a baby in 1871 etc. The people in those photos aren't "mine" alone. They are part of my attenuated family and they are very precious to others in that family. I've never even considered not sharing.

Regarding misattribution - this happens with individual records, spouses, children and life events as well as photos. And it is the most maddening part of the Internet age of genealogy because once there is a misattribution getting it corrected is like pulling weeds - it never stops.

A very eye opening article for me!

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