The Meaning of Family Photographs

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The Meaning of Family Photographs

By Charles Williams

|[pic] |
|Vanek family members dance. |

The family is on vacation. A father takes out his point-and-shootcamera, poses his wife and kids and takes a quick snapshot. Eventually, the photograph is filed away in the family photo album. Ameaningless activity? Maybe not. Everyday, thousands of familyphotographs are taken with little regard for the meaning of therecorded image.

Much attention has been paid to scholars' views ofdomestic life. However, relatively little attention has been paid tocultural productions, such as photo albums, that have been generatedby families themselves (Trend, 1992). By neglecting discussion onthis subject, scholars indicate that the home is not a place ofserious academic work (Trend, 1992). But researchers increasingly arestudying the meaning behind the photographs.

April Saul won firstplace in the Feature Picture Story category at the 1992 Pictures ofthe Year competition for her portrayal of the American family. Shebelieved that family struggles were an important topic of journalism. "I hope what it [winning] means is that the everyday struggles of anAmerican family are as valid in their own way as the struggles goingon in Azerbajian or Sarajevo -- and that the private wars next doorcan be as compelling as the bloody, public ones thousands of milesaway."

Family photographs can be considered cultural artifacts becausethey document the events that shape families' lives. Thus, therecording of family history becomes an important endeavor. In manycases, photographs are the only biographical material people leavebehind after they die (Boerdam, Martinius, 1980). But, the impact offamily photo albums extends beyond merely recording history. Interpretation of family structures, relationships and self ispossible through viewing family photographs.

The Meaning of family photographs

Interpretation of meaning behind photographs assumes that they are ameans of communication (Entin, 1979). Family photographs can tell astory. One photograph can be a mini-slice of an occurrence, but theaccumulation of pictures begins to reveal threads of consistent themesand patterns. For all practical purposes, they become an informalphoto essay.

Much like family storytelling, photographs indicaterelationships within and among the family. Indeed, the family photoalbum is an easy way to initiate outsiders to family history (Boerdam,Martinius, 1980). Photographs provide an easy topic of conversationallowing potential family members, such as boyfriends or girlfriends,to be initiated into family structures and tradition.

A key principleto consider when interpreting photographs is that they are produced bychoice. Choices about who, what, when and where to photograph can sayas much about the photographer as the subject. The camera does notsimply record an event but also records what the photographer choosesto see. Photographs are a statement about one's perception of theworld. They are a reflection and definition of self. If that personhas a happy family, then others may perceive him to be a good husbandor wife. Parents' innocent snapshots are important in constructingtheir sense of identity (Merz, 1988). Traditionally, photographs havebeen taken from a male perspective. The father is most often absentfrom family photographs because he is the one who usually commandsauthority, poses the family and takes the picture (Trend, 1992).

The family photographer isn't the only one who has authority to shape thefamily image. Other people may edit the photos. Some photographs areselected for presentation in an album while others are rejected. Control of the editorial process can be as important as control overproduction of the photographs. Decisions regarding what to keep,throw away and display can provide valuable information about theperson assembling the album.

History of...
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