Friday, 28 December 2007

Photo misinterpretation

A picture of an ancestor is a great addition to any genealogy. Fortunately photography became quite common from the 1880s and chances are you can look at images of ancestors back three and more generations. Do you stare at the image trying to get inside their head? I do. But after reading a recent article in The Telegraph I'm wondering about the impressions I get.

Remember passport or driver license photograph you hated. Suppose the treasured photo with your great grandfather was one he despised, but it was saved as others in the photo liked their portrayal. My great grandfather, John Marmon, scowls at me nearly a century after he was captured in his daughter's wedding photo. Does it do him justice?

He had a beard, more men did in those days. Looking at the picture through 21st century eyes do we read the same things into the image that they would in those times? That's were an article in The Telegraph reporting recent research findings comes in:

Prof Wiseman discovered that beards have a huge effect on how people are seen. When compared with the clean-shaven, those sporting white beards are seen as less generous (by 28 per cent), cheerful (39 per cent) and caring (29 per cent).

"When it comes to the relationship between perceived personality and facial hair, beards matter - and the effects are mainly negative," says Prof Wiseman.

Later in the article:

"Although there is absolutely no relationship between honesty and facial hair, the stereotype is powerful enough to affect the world - perhaps explaining why everyone on the Forbes 100 list of the world's richest men is clean-shaven, and why no successful candidate for the American presidency has had a beard or moustache since 1910."

It's worth reflecting on how your impressions of your ancestors seen in old photos are influenced by this type of cultural filter.

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