Mistaken Identity in Old Photos: A Facial Recognition Challenge

By Maureen A. Taylor

Last week a woman at one of my lectures raised her hand, pointed at an old photo on the screen, and said “the man in that photo is my great-grandfather!”

You can imagine the oohs and ahhs of the other attendees. What a coincidence! Stranger things have happened, but to be safe, I asked her to email me a picture of her ancestor.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

I wanted the photo reunion to be real, but when I received her emailed photo, it was clear that the two men weren’t the same. It was a case of mistaken identity because the men had the same facial shape, mustache and even hairline.

Comparing faces in old family photos isn’t easy. Not everyone can read faces, and even technology can get it wrong. You can take a fun (not diagnostic) test at Faceblind.org to see how good you are at recognizing people.

Factors that interfere with our ability to compare faces:

  • The angle of the portraits (profile versus face forward)
  • Glasses
  • Hair changes
  • Facial hair
  • Makeup
  • Shadows

So I thought let’s have a little fun with these two pictures. Do you think these men are the same person? Why or why not?

Comparing faces in old family photos

Click Comments below to reply. Ready … set …. go!


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

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