Thy Phu wants you to see beyond the photograph.
She wants you to consider not only what is pictured, but what is missing – and why. She wants you to think about who is taking the photo and the power that comes with selecting the image that resides in the frame.
This is the impetus behind the English professor’s involvement in The Family Camera Network, a project and partnership that explores the relationship between photography and the idea of family.
“In Canada, our understanding of family has expanded in response to cultural shifts including same-sex marriage, transnational adoptions, dislocations due to political instability and war, and economic opportunity. Our personal photographs document our feelings about family, how we define family, and how we stay connected to loved ones who may be separated as a result of these dislocations,” Phu explained.
Funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant, The Family Camera Network is a collaboration with six institutions, with Western as the lead. In 2016, researchers began building a public archive of family photographs, collecting the stories of the photos and building an archive to be housed at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
To date, researchers have collected more than 10,000 photographs and 30 oral history interviews.
By preserving family photos and their stories, the public archive researchers are building will be an important resource for teachers, historians and scholars to write new histories of photography, family and Canada, Phu said.
Over the past three years of the project, two exhibits of collected photographs have been on display at the ROM: The Family Camera coincided with Canada’s 150th anniversary and focused on family photographs in the context of migration. Queering Family Photography focused on photographic representations of LGBTQ families; it runs through Saturday at the ROM’s Stephen Bulger Gallery.
“As we were starting to develop this project, we started to understand what we thought we understood about family photos is only a small amount of the richness of these materials. We were also curious about the historical context in which these images were being produced – contexts in which the category of family was being redefined. Opening up our understanding of family beyond biology, to account not only for adoption, but also for chosen families, was important,” Phu explained.
For more than a decade, Phu has examined the social history of photography with a focus on race and minoritized subjects. With a new book forthcoming on visual representation of the Vietnam War, she is helping revise history, through a Vietnamese photographer’s lens.
“A lot of the images that emerged from the war are very familiar and iconic in war photography, but most images people think are representative of Vietnam are from the Western press,” Phu said.
She realized the part of history that is missing, the “war beyond the battlefield and the spectacle, the ordinariness of survival and the ways everyday people are affected by the violence of war” resided in family photographs and, out of that, her interest in the images, alongside her involvement in The Family Camera Network grew.
“The first exhibit – The Family Camera – coincided with Canada’s 150. We felt it was important to reflect on what it means to be a nation and what it means to be Canadian. We needed to recognize, with this nation and this dominant discourse of inclusion, celebration and changing relationships to migration, not everything is included and celebrated,” Phu said.
“When people came to last year’s show (on migration), the familiar response was, ‘This is one if the first times I’ve seen people who look like me on a museum wall.’ It’s important to know you are worth looking at. I wanted people to think about the power – good and bad – in being able to be seen, the empowerment that comes with being seen and the power that is being exercised when one is in a position to select who gets to be seen.”
Everyone is fascinated by family photographs, she added. What sets researchers apart is a capacity to preserve family photos as historical artefacts and the ability to think through the implications that come alongside them. What does it mean to see families? To portray families in different ways? What does it mean to have no visible record of family?
“Photography is beyond the image. We want to understand the poignancy the idea of the image, the idea of images that are lost, images we can’t bear to look at, images that are unretrievable, especially in the digital age. There is still a resonance photographs have with us,” Phu added.
“When we interview, we have two cameras – one that records the participant speaking and another that focuses on the photograph and in postproduction. We suture the two together. But if there is no image, there is still a story, and it’s a story about the absence of image. Our project is able to nuance and capture a full picture of what it means to miss the picture. It’s also able to get at the complexity of our family lives,” she went on.
“Family photographs are very popular now because I think there is a strong emotional attachment, but we don’t want to overemphasize the positive feelings people have because not all the feelings we have in regards to family are positive. We are interested in mixed feelings we have towards family photographs, photographs that are so painful you don’t want to look at them. Photographs you wish you could get rid of but you can’t. Why do we feel the way we do? How do secret ways in which we hide photographs negotiate our ideas of what family is?”
Phu and her colleagues are now in the collection management phase of the project, working to catalogue, digitize and make accessible the archive they are building. They will continue collecting photos and stories until the end of 2018.