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The People Who Return Lost Memories

Photo and genealogy enthusiasts are rescuing vintage photographs from thrift stores to reunite them with their original families

Vintage old black and white family photos ancestry returned lost found

For Derek Veal, it all started when he was 12 years old, playing in his grandfather’s tobacco barn in Georgia. While exploring the barn’s nooks and crannies, Veal found an old suitcase. Inside were stacks of old photographs, some of them over 100 years old.

The suitcase belonged to his great-grandmother. She had Alzheimer’s and lived in a nearby nursing home. Veal and his grandfather went to visit her with the stack of photos, hoping she could tell them more about them. What happened next changed Veal’s life.

Everything came back to her when she saw these pictures,” Veal said. “She recognized her sisters, her aunts, her grandparents… It was the first time I ever saw someone’s excitement from an old photo returning to them.”

The experience made Veal realize the power of old photographs to hold cherished and long-forgotten memories and restore a sense of identity. It never left him. It was the first thing Veal, now 54 and living in Jacksonville, Florida, thought about when he stumbled across a stack of old family photos for sale at a thrift store two years ago. “I’d already researched my own family’s history,” he said. “I decided to pick a picture out, research it, and then try to get it back to the family.” Soon, Veal bought more photos and started a Facebook group called Old Photo Project to aid in finding their families.

READ MORE: Learn how a Kansas City family matched abandoned photos with those who posed for them.

Veal is not the only person to take on the hobby of returning lost photographs. Photo and genealogy enthusiasts around the world have taken on the task of digging through thrift stores, flea markets, and antique shops, searching for old, vintage photographs with the objective of reuniting them with their original families.

Other enthusiasts have used the internet and even social media to track down the families and faces in the lost photos. David Gutenmacher, 26, lives in Queens, New York, and started his project, Museum of Lost Memories, in late 2020. He already has over 300,000 followers on Instagram and over 750,000 on TikTok. “Some of my posts have gone viral and twice a person or family was tracked down in a matter of minutes!” Gutenmacher said. The motivation behind this hobby seems to be a combination of enjoying the detective work it takes to solve the puzzle, and the richness these lost pictures can bring back to the families they belong to.

Kate Kelley with some of her photos.
(photo courtesy of Kate Kelley)

The joy of reuniting families with memories is also what drives Kate Kelley, 44, from Attleboro, Massachusetts, who posts her found photography adventures on her Facebook page, Photo Angel. For Kelley, this hobby has always had a touch of the divine to it. “God has a hand in this for sure.” In fact, oftentimes, it feels like these found pictures are meant to be; bringing back pieces of a family puzzle that seemed long since lost and healing old wounds in the process.

Take Kelley’s favorite story of returning a photograph. It involved a snapshot of a couple on their 50th wedding anniversary with only a location and date: Maine, 1924. After countless hours of research, going off the smallest of details, Kelley finally tracked down the couple’s grandniece. It turns out the family had a fire years before and lost nearly all their family photos. “This was the only existing photo of their great aunt and uncle,” Kelly said. “In this line of work, you never know what you’re going to discover next and how you can bless someone else.”

What makes this hobby so unique is not only how it gives people the chance to help others, but it also brings these enthusiasts a sense of purpose. “I feel like this is my calling,” said Kelley. A calling found by many because of a quick stop at a thrift store. It’s as if the sight of these old photos, sitting forgotten, divinely nudges each of them to act. “The more I return memories,” said Gutenmacher, “the more it feels like I’m supposed to be doing this.”

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