Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Should genealogists edit photographs?

The question in the title to this post is not rhetorical. It has an answer. There is a significant movement in parts of the genealogical community emphasizing the acquisition and sharing of photographs. Most of the large online genealogical websites, both commercial and non-commercial have made provisions for the sharing of photographs online. I am certainly not against the effort as witnessed by the thousands of photos I have digitized and the dozens, I have put online. My plan is to share all of the digitized images I have.

But underlying this effort is a real question. We presently have extremely sophisticated photo editing capabilities. With a little time and effort, I can make significant changes to any digitized image, as can anyone with knowledge of the same programs. But collectively, as a genealogical community, we have little or no standards as to what is or is not an acceptable edit to a digitized photograph. For an example, here is a screen shot of the photos loaded into the FamilySearch Photos program for one of my ancestors: (you may need to click on these images to see the detail)

In this collage of photos, you can see four photos that are apparently from the same original, but in each case the photos are slightly different. There has been little editing, but the duplicate photo on the lower right has been cropped and is of poorer quality than the others. In addition, The lower left photo has been scanned from an image that was not only cut to shape, but also has a substantial color/tonal change to a false sepia. The group photo in the center of the photo is also edited, although you might not recognize that fact unless you had the original for comparison. Here is an unedited copy of the original photograph:

Now, you may have the opinion that all of the changes I have noted fall within the "acceptable" category and are really minor and nothing to worry about. But how much change to an original photograph is acceptable? In this case, on FamilySearch Photos, it is apparent that at least for the duplicate images, people have uploaded the image they found which may have been altered before they obtained the copy.  Here is a screen shot of the bottom of the page:

The second photo from the bottom of the page is the same photo shown on the top right of the page. However, the image has been inverted from left to right in the image on the top of the page. If is also obvious from the full image on the left of the bottom of the page, that the photograph is itself a copy of an earlier photograph, so we have no idea if the right/left distinction in the original photograph has been maintained in the printing. In addition, the photograph that shows as the second one down on top right of the first photograph above, has 8 images, at least two of which are cropped images from other photos that appear on the page.

So, it appears that for many years, long before computers, these photos were being edited, sometimes simply to fit into an album or on a pedigree chart. Is there an issue here? Do we need to simply give up and say that all is fair in photo manipulation and that is the end of the discussion?

Just as a failure to add sources has been a longstanding burden on the genealogical community, I believe that modifying, editing and changing original photographs is also a great disservice to the community. Over the past year or so, I have had several discussions with photo archivists. In every instance when I had a question about editing the content of the photos I was scanning, I have been told not to make any changes at all, if possible with only some very limited exceptions.

Photography is more art than science. But to the extent possible as conservators of the past, we should not destroy the very heritage we are trying to preserve. Genealogy is not scrapbooking. Scrapbooking has its place and if anyone wants to modify a copy of a photograph, they can certainly do so, but to the extent possible, we need to protect and preserve our "original" photographs from any further changes that might alter the content, even in ways that are otherwise "acceptable."

I also recognize, with the vast number of photographs being digitized and the ease in making edits and changes, that this issue will become a huge problem. At which point in the editing process will we entirely lose the ability to identify the original photograph?

I realize that I am frequently raising issues that need to be addressed by the greater genealogical community but seldom go anywhere past my brief blog posts. But this is an issue that goes to the heart of historicity of the images we intend to preserve as a society and as a culture. We may end up losing our heritage of photography, not to decay of the original paper photographs, but to the quick and easy editing ability of our software.  We need standards for establishing original photos and for "acceptable" editing as well as a way to deal with changed or degraded copies of the originals, when the originals are available.


  1. I appreciate your post. Will you share it with FHISO? I have been anxious for an ability to link multiple photos in FamilySearch. I think this ability should become a standard. The original scan and edits should be able to be easily marked as such. I support fields for all data needed for basic analysis. Date taken, previous owner, photographer, photo type, original or edit, ect.

  2. James, thanks for raising the topic. I agree that photos should basically not be altered. What about cropping or quality corrections? Are there occasions where these (and maybe other functions) are acceptable? Do photojournalists have a standard that we could consider?
    I also agree that a standard should be established for embedding source and copyright information INTO photos. But please use the EXIF or IPTC areas already established - don't reinvent the wheel.
    All of these points may already be established as standards somewhere. If so, I would love to know where.

  3. In his response, Michael McCormick (no known relationship) mentioned clearly marked edits. In our household, my husband has kept all his original uploads and original scans separated from any editing he has done. We have not yet solved our storage management problems, but whatever choice we make will clearly separate the originals from any edited version.

    I see a value in some uses of edited photos. If I am talking about my uncle's photographs, you should see those images as I have them. If I am using some of those photographs to show my sister's mood changes as a toddler, than I believe that darkroom errors and time blemishes can and should be edited out. I want you to look at my sister, NOT at the photography. But I also believe that the edited images should be so identified, and that the editor should be identified.

    Thank you for starting this discussion.

    Sue McCormick