10 Questions To Ask Your Grandparents About Their Old Photos
My dad sent me these old photos of my grandfather Gus recently. We all know “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but a picture also raises a thousand questions! My grandfather Gus died when I was in second grade, so I never really got to know him. That’s why we should all consider these ten questions to ask our grandparents about their old photos.
Over the years, I learned that my grandfather Gus moved to New York from Italy when he was six and was an illegal immigrant for many years. He had two first names, neither of which were on his birth certificate. He was a manager for Good Humor. I have so many questions about this photo that my dad sent me. It can be difficult to talk to our grandparents about current things, especially because many may have lost their short-term memory. However, asking them about their past by using old photos as conversation starters ignites a spark in their eyes and opens up the floodgates of memory. All of a sudden, there is a conversation happening that you never want to end! Even if your grandparent may not remember the conversation an hour from now, you will forever. And you will tell your children all about them, because doesn’t everyone want to understand where they came from?
Let’s dive into the types of questions that are best to ask your grandparents about old family photos.
- Open-Ended Questions: these are the best types of questions to spark a conversation between you and your grandparent. Remember to be patient and avoid rapid-fire questions. One simple, open-ended question is best. Examples would be, “What do you think about this photo?” or “What do you remember about when this photo was taken?”
- Location, location, location: Start asking questions like, “Where was this taken?,” “What town?,” or “Was this your home?” This line of questioning could evolve into more detailed questions about the location, such as, “Did you grow up there, fall in love there?”
- It’s all about people! Ask your grandparent casually to identify anyone they recognize in the photograph. “Who is in this photo?,” “Is this you, grandpa, coming out of the outhouse?” “Who may have been there, but isn’t pictured in the photo?” “Was your mom always around but hated her photo being taken?”
- Let’s give credit: Consider asking a simple question like, “Who took this photo?” “Was it a professional photographer?” “Did you know they were taking the photo, and was this a big deal?” Sometimes knowing who was behind the camera is just as important as knowing who was in front of the camera!
- Show me the details: Mention something specific in the photo, such as an object, and ask your grandparent about it. “Grandpa, is that your 1960s Ford Mustang?,” “Grandpa, what brand of cigar is that hanging from your mouth?” “What is that outfit you’re wearing?” Try to help your grandparent transport themselves back to when the photo was taken. Jog their memory gently with curious questions. I know would like to ask my grandpa Gus why the outhouse is leaning!
- Take Time into Account: By asking your grandparents about old family photos, you start on a journey with them. So you need to take time into account. For example, the time of year, the month, the day, and the season. “Grandpa, was this photo taken during your favorite season?” “Do you recall if it was hot or cold?”
- Why was this photo taken: Before cameras were so readily-available, photos were usually taken during special occasions. So, be sure to ask your grandparent about why a particular photo was taken! “Grandpa, was this a special occasion? “Was it a holiday or birthday?” “Was is common to have photos taken?” Regarding the photo my Dad sent me of grandpa Gus, I would like to know what occasion warrants a photo being taken of you exiting an outhouse.
- Initiate sensory memory: Ask your grandparent what they remember about the day or moment the photo was taken. “Was there music playing?” “What were your favorite songs?” If the photo was taken outside, what did it smell like? “Were there orange blossoms blooming?” “What did the cake taste like?”
- A woman never reveals her age…except when it comes to family history: Knowing your grandparents’ age in the photo can be very interesting. So, ask them! “How old were you in this photo, Grandma?” “Was this before or after you met grandpa?”
- Do you have any more memories about that day? One memory may lead to another! So, be sure to ask more questions. “Do you remember what happened after the picture, getting ready for the picture?” If I were lucky enough to be sitting with grandpa Gus talking to him about this photo, I would ask about the day the photo was taken, and was this supposed to be a funny photo? I would learn more about this man with the cigar coming out of an outhouse, and maybe I would learn it wasn’t even an outhouse. But no one will ever know, because no one asked.
Discovering more about your grandparents’ lives is often as easy as sitting down with a box full of old family photos. Take time to do this soon, while your grandparents are able to tell you stories and share wonderful anecdotes about their childhood. You will undoubtedly learn something special about your own story, too! After all, your story started before you.
About the author:
Kate Arney-Cimino is the creator of GrandmaSays, a free app for families who have a loved one in a long-term care facility. Simply put, it’s a tool to help family members coordinate visits, communicate health updates, and archive memories with their loved one. Kate lives in Los Angeles and loves family history and old photos! You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Joe Peters says:
November 1, 2015 at 8:10 pm
I love your explanation and detail. Love to you.
Deborah Allen says:
November 30, 2015 at 12:24 am
my father has a scrap book of world war II. reconstruction. He worked in a army hospital. So every year he gets this picture out and say’s have I shown you the picture of the president. We all say yes and he show’s us again. So just a couple years ago he got it out and I, My big sis, and the two little sisters are standing there and he show’s us a picture of then general eisenhower entering the hospital. so I say gee pop you couldn’t get a better picture than that. He looks at me and says “A better picture! What do you mean My buddies have me by the ankles and I’m hanging from the 4th or 5th floor. I look a big sis just as she punches me and say’s who knew? for 50 years he neglected that part. Totally made sense too. If you saw the picture. I mean you can see it’s him. But who’d have thought the General/future president walking thru the door with a 19 year old kid dangling by his ankles taking a picture. Ask questions you never know what the answer will be. Great tips and article.
December 1, 2015 at 10:16 pm
wow! great story!
Andrew Martin says:
January 23, 2016 at 10:39 am
this is a brilliant article with some real practical advice on accessing those long-filed memories. I’ve always found photographs have worked well for nudging the stories out of people who always think they ‘don’t know anything’. They always do.. the trick is finding the trigger. Thanks for sharing.
January 25, 2016 at 2:47 am
Thanks, Andrew! Photographs are often the best memory catalysts! 🙂
Bryher scudamore says:
February 22, 2016 at 4:31 pm
This is an excellent article. Photographs play such an IMPORTANT part in Bringing back memories. REmember your family history starts with you so please write you life story for your family. If you want some free advice go to http://www.autodotbiography.com
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