Who's Who in Your Family Photos?

by Joelle Steele

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Who is in that antique photograph? Is it your great-grandfather or his brother? Your aunt or her sister? To identify an individual, especially in an unmarked photograph, you must compare the unidentified person with a known photo of the person you think it might be. Then, you can carefully examine the facial features and characteristics of each individual to see if they match.

In the two photos below, the photo on the left is of a distant ancestor, Karl. What about the photo on the right? Is that Karl too? Or could it be his older brother Matt? They certainly look the same, don't they?

Brother Karl Brother Matts

LEFT: Karl. RIGHT: Matts.

There are some obvious similarities between the two men above. They have the same round protruding eyes and they are wearing the same tie, but they have their hair combed differently, and most men of their time didn't change the way they combed their hair too much during their lives. So, I figured the photos were probably not of the same man. But I wanted to be sure.

The first thing I ever look at are ears. Ears have been used for many years to identify people — they were the forerunners of today's fingerprinting. No matter how similar or even identical a face may look, if the ears are different it isn't the same person. Unfortunately, I couldn't easily compare the ears in these two photos because the photo on the right does not show quite enough detail of the ear's lower helix (the outer shell). So, I decided to instead look at their other features, and I found that the man in the photo on the right has a decidedly shorter nose bridge than does Karl, and in addition, his lower lip is not as full as Karl's.

As it turns out, the unidentified man is not Karl. This was confirmed for me some years later when I received a photo of the same unidentified man along with other photos of Karl's brothers, and this particular photo was labeled as his brother Matt. Mystery solved.

Another mystery photo below. The unidentified man in the middle was tentatively identified as Karl's son Nestor.

Brother Edvin Unidentified Man Brother Nestor

LEFT: Edvin. MIDDLE: Unidentified. RIGHT: Nestor.

I looked at several photos of Nestor taken at different times in his life. The photo of him at left was taken when he was a very young man. I compared the photos to the unidentified man in uniform. They are not a match. Right off, the ears don't match. Nestor's ears are higher on his head than those of the unidentified man. The mouths are similar, but Nestor's upper lip is narrower and his nose is not as turned up to reveal the nostrils the way they are in the unidentified man.

There was another possibility: Nestor had a brother named Edvin, two years younger. The photo of Edvin was taken when he was a very young man. The unidentified man is more likely to be Edvin because the ears, when magnified, appear to be the same. Also, Edvin's nose and mouth are a closer match to the unidentified man, and the eyes are similar. However, while Edvin appears to be the more likely candidate, and the facial features in the photos are close, they are not exact enough for me to say for sure. In addition, I have no information to indicate that Edvin ever served in the military, while Nestor definitely did. So, this mystery remains to be solved.

Now, an easier identification. The unidentified woman below was my grandmother's sister-in-law, a sister of Karl and Matt who were mentioned above. But which sister-in-law? Was it Hulda or her sister Johanna Alina?

Sister Hulda Sister Hulda Sister Johanna Alina

LEFT AND MIDDLE: Hulda. RIGHT: Unidentified.

As adults in their 60s and 70s, Hulda and her older sister Johanna Alina looked very similar, and they didn't really resemble their younger selves. Also, when they were younger, there weren't many photos of them to compare. In fact, I could not find a single photo of Johanna Alina to compare to the unidentified woman above. But, I had two photos of her sister Hulda. Bingo! The unidentified woman had to be Johanna Alina. Just look at the eyes. Hulda's are very round with prominent lids on top and bottom. This also enabled me to identify Johanna Alina and Hulda in a couple of group photos taken in the 1920s and 1930s.

It can be a real challenge to identify people when the family resemblance is strong. And sometimes it is hard to identify them until we really compare their faces, feature by feature. You can learn how to do this yourself by reading my book, Face to Face: Analysis and Comparison of facial Features to Authenticate Identities of People in Photographs. Then get to work labeling all those great family photos!

This article last updated: 06/18/2016.