The Family Photo: Inventing Time, Place, and Memory
Madras, 1965. The living room of my grandparents’ home had two walls adorned with photographs, one facing the other. On one, there was the family, our family, the various momentous events of sons and daughters, graduations, weddings, and births. The story of three generations told through milestones unfolded before our eyes. Opposite, there were two other family stories on display, images cut out from newspapers or magazines and framed, those of King George VI and Queen Mary, together with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret atop their ponies and of Pandit Nehru with his daughter Indira. The family as nation and the nation as family were visually inextricable in that room, where the fan whirred all day against the humid, tropical heat.
In what follows, I want to explore the question of how implicated the personal and the public are through family photography, as both seek to construct, reconstruct, and invent histories lived against the ephemera of time and place. In this sense, I draw on the seminal notion proposed by Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida (1980), that photos signal death, precisely because they seek to rescue the photographic moment from the obliteration that accompanies the passage of time and the inevitable alterations of place. Writing of his mother’s portrait, soon after her death and not long before his own, Barthes proposes that her image, which affirms her presence in the past, also affirms her absence in the present. It is this overriding sense of death that gives the image its punctum, its poignancy, and hence makes it both meaningful and memorable. The images on my grandparents’ wall, in that house that has long ceased to exist, were just so: they constructed a sense of the family in nation, time, and history, even as the family itself dispersed.
Those were the days of analogue photography, when the family photo often marked an event, so that the very act of photographing lifted the latter out of the ordinary flow of the everyday. The family photo, an occasion in and of itself, was taken in a bid to freeze lived experience in time and place. The photographic act confirmed that very existence. It was meant to ensure that the memory of the event or of the subjects would endure. And that material fragment of memory was often crafted through careful staging, following the visual tropes of “good” photographic practice, tried and tested in studios across the world, constructed out of invisible threads – lighting, pose, and composition – that tacitly harnessed the particular, the personal, and the private to innumerable such images of “other” people and places. Across cities and homes, family photos unwittingly ricocheted to create larger histories. Every family photo thus resides alongside, and helps construct, archives of the collective, so that it speaks to and resonates with a history of the familial nation, the family as the building block of the nation. Family photos form part of the larger ideological and political visual fields that define and shape the public sphere. As such, these small fragments of the personal, when considered not as one-offs, but as part of a larger spectrum of visual signs, serve to construct collective memory.
To say, though, that family photos tell stories that belong to us and others is not enough. Yes, nothing refreshes memory like the family album. Few things reassure us, as lone subjects, of a sense of community as does picturing ourselves with those who are or were ours. However, that album, seen in the course of decades and generations, gains new meaning across time and place. The family album is a compass, for we seek from it our own historical orientation. For most of us, the homely album is the single most important source of genealogical verification. We gaze at the images of our elders, of our former selves, to glean a sense of who we are and where we come from. In her book Family Frames (2012), writes of how, for the fragmented, uprooted post-war subjects of the twentieth century and beyond, family photos are instruments for idealising the family, for imagining it as the indissoluble, united, cohesive, and biologically confirmed unit from which to draw stability in an otherwise chaotic and troubled world. The ideals perceived via the image are as important as the question of memory, precisely because they fuel the surface impression of that which endures. Indeed, these ideals are not separate from memory. They are the ideological fabric from which memory itself is invented and shaped.
This is really why family photos are important. In the face of change, they offer a space from which to invent memories, our own and those of our times. Photos are material objects that nevertheless have an agency of their own. In What Do Pictures Want? (2006), W.J.T. Mitchell argues that images are dynamic. They have the power to influence, persuade viewers, to invite them to invent memory. These photos speak eloquently to one another, even if they are not located next to each other, through the mind’s eye of the viewer. They operate in ideologically charged networks that idealise the family in the same vein as the nation, as a stable and enduring entity in the face of the upheavals of modern times. Family photos do not really preserve memory. In actual fact, they invent the family, as they do the nation: they invite the desiring viewer to engage in the imaginative play of memory, through scattered frames that house the flickers of time and place.
Parvati Nair is Professor of Hispanic, Cultural, and Migration Studies at Queen Mary University of London, where she is currently Head of the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film. She writes principally on photography relating to migration and displacement. Among her many publications is A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado, published in 2011 by Duke University Press.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980).
Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977).
W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
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Parvati Nair is Professor of Hispanic, Cultural, and Migration Studies at Queen Mary University of London, where she is currently Head of the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film. She writes principally on photography relating to migration and displacement. Among her many publications is A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado, published in 2011 by Duke University Press. In her article for PIX, Prof. Nair explores the question of how implicated the personal and the public are through family photography, as both seek to construct, reconstruct, and invent histories lived against the ephemera of time and place. In this sense, she draws on the seminal notion proposed by Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida (1980), that photos signal death, precisely because they seek to rescue the photographic moment from the obliteration that accompanies the passage of time and the inevitable alterations of place.