“After 17 years I’m back in Shanghai and all along, my memory has been playing tricks” (Otsuka, 2006:33).
Why do we take images for family albums? We take them to remember people as they were. Traditionally in portrait photography, it has been a point of argument whether a photograph can or cannot reveal the true sense of a person, their personality or inner self. To me the photograph is merely surface – a likeness -, it is what the photographer or archivist wants to be seen, and holds no deeper resonance. In addition, not only do we want to remember, we want to acknowledge our existence, and in the future, be ourselves remembered as an essential part of the family unit. It is not only about belonging, but about leaving a trace of ourselves that will be around long after we are gone: photographs are tokens of immortality. The family album both represents what has to be continued and perpetuates the myth of the ‘happy family’, which can be construed in multiple ways depending on the viewer and their motives. The portrayal of the ‘happy family’ is dependent on the various stages of editing – the photographer decides who is included or left out, tells the subjects where to stand or sit, and when to say “Cheese!” The collator then decides which photographs are worthy of going into the album and which will be left in a box, or thrown away. The editing and archiving follow perceived ideologies of family history, reflecting the editor’s own purpose and personal viewpoint. Claire Grey believes that history is always a personal account (Holland Spence, 1991: 108). But do these photos help us remember or do they alter or replace the real memories of what happened and who the people in the photos really were? In this essay, I will attempt to explain why I believe that the memories imbedded in the family album are constructs, falsehoods. I am going to look at images from six photographers as well as my own family albums to ascertain the accuracy of memory generated by image.
In looking at a family album, do I take other people’s and family member’s recollections and apply them to my own history? Collective memory can twist the truth and often construct altered variations. As stories pass from one generation to the next, they are prone to fabrication and exaggeration. Lorie Novak states, “Our own images are often tied up in family legend with conversations about family photographs frequently accompanied by embellishment and invention. Photographs and the narratives they inspire can become substitutes for memories of actual events” (Hirsch, 1999: 26-27). She also wondered whether the information omitted from her own family album shaped her memories and studied this concept in her work (Hirsch, 1999: 15). Maybe this is the same for Ingrid Hesling, who, at the age of 16, found out that she was adopted - I wonder if this new information changed her memories or merely her perception of her memories: it would appear those that were once fond became bitter. She questioned her entire childhood leading her to create work using a combination of old family photos, text and her own contemporary images. Her work is an investigation into how memory can be altered depending on how you relate to the history behind it and the images documenting it.
Analysing Numbers (Figure 1), the eye is drawn immediately to the smiling child clutching her toys, an image taken from the family album, then to the accompanying photo, and finally to its contents, the numbers – which symbolically do not reach 16 - and the text. The emptiness behind the child and the distance between her and the numbers - enhanced by the strong horizontals – metaphorically represents the separation from the truth. The child and toys have connotations of family, comfort and home, whereas, the numbers suggest conformity, lack of individuality and belonging, - being a number without identity. The subject matter is not...