Increasing the Exposure: Family History Through the Lens
Sydney Murphy Public Programs Fall 2020 Intern
Family photos hold a unique space within our personal histories and contemporary art. The family photos of Black women photographers, such as Carrie Mae Weems and Latoya Ruby Fraizer, help validate and enlighten the artistry within ourselves and our ancestors. Taking some time to look back at these memories with loved ones can help spark inspiration and fill in the missing parts of our pasts.
Developing My History
My interest in my family’s history and genealogy has grown within the past few years. I come from a tiny family and have always wanted to know more about who and where I come from. In the beginning stages of my journey, I didn’t have much to start with. I falsely believed that African-American family histories were nearly impossible to discover due to the intentional separation of families during slavery and our exclusion from the federal census until 1870 after Emancipation. My journey started with a location: Cotton Plant, Arkansas. A small town where my maternal grandmother’s family left for Chicago during the Great Migration. I had heard a few family stories, but my interest came from the seemingly hundreds of pictures that my family had collected over the years but rarely talked about.
The home that I grew up in had boxes and boxes of photos stacked high in the basement. After coming home from college during a break, I asked my mom to help me go through them. It took us hours to go through all the dusty pictures, putting names to faces, laughing about memories, and holding space for those who are no longer with us. Spending time remembering and imagining the lives of those closest to us gave me a new motivation for genealogy research. Not only is my curiosity with my family’s history rooted in my lack of knowledge, it is also driven by wanting to understand where my life overlaps with my ancestors.’
I found the time spent with these family photos to be meditative and a great opportunity for reflection. While looking at family members in pictures, I often found myself wondering: “What were they like?”, “How are we similar?”, and “What was it like to live fifty years ago?" Asking questions like these helped me feel closer to the people in these photographs and helped to contextualize their lives within my own. Before I began seriously tracing my lineage, I never took the time to sit with the albums that my family collected and admire the artistry of these photos. It takes great skill and care to be the family photographer, an eye I hope to develop. The content of my family’s photos is vast, ranging from family functions, graduations, BBQs, birthdays, anniversaries, and recitals. Each one tells a different story and adds pieces to the puzzle of my life.
The census records, obituaries, and slave schedules that I’ve gathered through my research were all enough to trace my lineage, but family photos were fundamental in making me feel connected to my relatives. Family photographs have the power to evoke memories and emotions and are a glimpse into a shared past. There is much to gain from sitting with the photos passed down in your family and acknowledging the beauty and intention behind every shot. My family albums hold pictures from my great-great-grandmother Delma Floyd-Pulce, passed down to her daughter, and eventually passed down to me. This ritual is not unique to my family. Black women have often taken the responsibility of remembering and passing down family histories. Sharing family stories is one way of filling in the gaps about our past that are often excluded from recorded history. Photographs, memory, and oral traditions have tremendous value in humanizing the experiences of our ancestors. I am continually inspired and grateful to the women in my life who continue this tradition of preservation and remembrance.
Photographers Who Bring Families Into Focus
Reflecting on the works of Black women photographers, who use family as their muse, has been a helpful exercise in validating and revealing the beauty in my family photos. Latoya Ruby Frazier’s series “The Notion of Family, 2001—2014” highlights the striking beauty found in familiar scenes of Black domesticity. Frazier powerfully challenges negative images of Black families in the media by preserving intimate moments with her mother and grandmother. She uses images of her family and hometown in Pennsylvania to bring light to the effects of environmental racism and health care inequities that impact many Black households.
Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table Series, 1990” and “Family Pictures and Stories, 1981—1982” are additionally compelling documentations of everyday Black life. Weems’ work draws attention to the joy, tension, complexities, and simplicities of relationships generally kept behind closed doors. Leaning into the intimacy of home, motherhood, and family, Weems creates images that would almost seamlessly fit into the picture frames in my living room.
In addition to Weems and Frazier, the photography of Lorraine O’Grady, Deana Lawson, and Ming Smith have also considered and created space for Black lives and families within conversations about contemporary art. These artists help me raise the question: what would I find if I treated my family photos as works of art?
Family Photo Meditation
The following activity is designed to invite the family pictures that may be collecting dust in your own homes to contribute to larger conversations about identity, history, and who is considered an artist. Whether this exercise is your first venture into family history, or you are a seasoned researcher, it can be helpful for stimulating future conversations and inquiries. During this time of social distancing, use this meditation to connect with family members1 you cannot be with physically. Family photos are a valuable tool for connecting to family, and I encourage using them to reflect and build our personal and collective archives.
- A partner2
- Family photos (3—5)
- Prompting questions (4—6)
- Voice recorder3
- Notebook and pen
Additional materials if participating remotely:
Set your intention for the exercise
What do you hope to learn or gain from this?
Who will you do this exercise with?
Family elders are a great place to start.
Use this as an opportunity to grow closer to a family member.
Choose your family photos
Part I: Solo
Spend 2—3 mins looking at each individual photo.
Take Notes on:
Colors, location, people, objects.
How does this image make you feel?
Who can you identify? Who is unfamiliar?
Does this image bring back any memories?
What questions does the photo leave you with?
Part II: With Your Partner
Spend time looking at and discussing each individual photo together.
Take notes and record the conversation.
Observe how you feel after the exercise. Write it down, or if comfortable, share it with your partner.
Try this exercise for the first time with someone you are comfortable with, in a quiet space.
If there is something you want to know more about, ask a follow-up question.
Record if you can! It can be hard to remember everything discussed. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to revisit the conversation in the future.
Respect boundaries. If you choose to record the conversation, get your partner’s consent first. If your partner feels uncomfortable about a topic, move on.
Take notes and write down questions as they come to you.
Listen! Be attentive, try not to talk over your partner.
Adding Depth: Continuing Your Research
My dearest friends and mentors5 always remind me that family history is a lifelong journey, and you will never stop finding new things. Family photos and oral history are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a wealth of resources (and a lot of them are free!) to help you get started or further discover parts of yourself and family.
Below are a collection of oral history projects and historical databases that can help fuel your journey.
- National Archives:
- The National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center
- National Archives: