Family history mysteries – Who is in the photographs?

I find it very frustrating when I look through old family photos and I have no idea who the subjects are. To add to my frustration, I also often have no idea where or when the photos were taken. Even a certain amount of detective work fails to satisfy my curiousity.

The photos above are an example. Thanks to a friend of mine (you know who you are Becky!) who looked after my Aunt Olga and Uncle Nick, I own two photo albums with photographs from the Woronoff side of the family – or at least from my grandfather’s sister, my great Aunt Natasha. So, the photos could be of the Woronoff family, or the Shulkevitch family. Or they could be of random friends!

One thing I can be grateful for, is that whoever took the photos in the albums took hardly any casual scenery photos – meaning I have less to throw out. You know the ones – those holiday snaps of beaches and mountains and roads to nowhere with not a single family member in them. My parents filled photo albums with those type of photos, as well as photos of houses, dogs and cars. Needless to say, I am not planning on keeping any of them.

But back to trying to solve the mystery of who, when and where.

I am going to guess that these photos were taken in China. When my great-Aunt Natasha and her husband escaped the Russian Revolution, they made their home in Harbin, China – as did many other White Russians. In the end their choice of location was perhaps not the best – for a better understanding you can read my previous posts about them here and here. However, it is likely there were few options at the time.

If you look closely at the photographs, it appears that the servants are Chinese. In the photo on the left, the women are wearing jackets and, in some cases scarves, which leads me to believe that, despite the sunlight, it was not a very warm day. Judging by both the timing of the Russian Revolution and the cloche hats worn by many of the women, I will guess again that the photo was taken sometime in the 1920s.

All three photos show people enjoying meals outside – most likely lunches as the light looks to be reasonable, although afternoon tea is also an option.

I do not recognise a single person in these photographs. This leaves me with another problem. Do I throw these photos out or do I hope that one day the mystery might be solved for me and I will discover who these people are? I know that when I disappear from this earth, the photos will not be kept. Would it be easier to get rid of them now? Part of me wants to find out the story behind the photos and how – or if – it fits into any of our family history stories. Part of me is ready to acknowledge that it is a mystery which will never be solved.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Elise McCune

    It’s such a hard decision. If I was in the same situation I’d keep those photos until you cull the ones you know that you won’t keep. You might find there are not too many and once they are gone you can’t get them back. I read about someone who collects photos of unknown people from op-shops and frames or puts them in albums. I often used to look at a photo of a woman from the nineteen-twenties in an op-shop but the woman in the op-shop said they wouldn’t sell it to me. I would have loved to buy it. One day I went in and the photo was gone and no one knows what happened to it. I guess when they were redoing the shop someone tossed it out.

    1. Avatar photo

      Thank you Elise! I never would have guessed that people collect photos of people they don’t know, how strange. I’m going through the photos bit by bit – apart from the two I wrote about, I have several more albums from my parents and grandparents.

  2. Cathy

    Maybe the China pics could be donated to an organisation focussing on the history of Russians (and other foreigners) who ended up there. Or a university or relevant government archives, a resource for historians? They are fascinating images. And one day you might connect some of the people with another aspect of your archive?
    While researching my con artist story I connected to an archivist who was also researching him for her website. I forwarded a newspaper article which included his pic. She discovered that this was the photo she had found of him via an album at the Australian National Archives. It had been mislabelled as someone else.

    1. Avatar photo

      That’s an idea! Thanks Cathy.

  3. Lawrence Serven

    I had no idea that China was a destination after the revolution. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Svetlana Starkova

    Hi Alex, your house is a real treasure trove!
    I’m sure that there are dozens of archives and/or researchers that may benefit from it, so please consider donating them. The ones that come to mind are all located in Russia, but I’m sure that there are also some closer to Australia which will be easier for you to contact.
    Just in case, let me name some Russian ones: there is the so-called “Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad” It’s located in Moscow and specializes in the history of Russian emigration. There’s also “RosFoto” museum in St. Petersburg, that is very much interested in historical photos: A friend of mine works there, so I know that they are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
    Come to think of it, there are many history lovers in Russian genealogical groups on Facebook, some of them surely specialize on “white emigration” in China, so showing some of the photos there could solve the mystery of at least some of the identities.
    Good luck, I know dealing with the excess of your family archive is always challenging!

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