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Why Family Photographs Matter | Thomas Allen Harris | TEDxCUNY

hi CUNY family how’s everyone doing so
my favorite childhood photo is my fifth
Easter Sunday in the photo my brother
and I are dressed in our Easter suits my
grandmother had just made for us we woke
up early so that my grandfather would be
able to take photographs of us a
tradition he did on any occasion that
called on us to look our best he
wouldn’t take the photo until he had the
perfect shot even if it meant being late
somehow I realized that that was an
expression of his love for us and his
pride in us and you could see it shine
through in photo after photo perhaps
this is why I become obsessed with the
family photo album and what’s happening
to the family album in the digital age
for the last 150 years families have
used their albums to pass on the story
from one generation to the next the
family album has kept us together but
now in the digital age how do we keep
and maintain the important visual
stories of our families and our
communities I have 10,000 photographs on
my phone probably more and I probably am
not unlike most people how many people
have taken a photograph on their phone
in the last week collectively we may
have a million images on us together in
this room we’re literally sweating and
images on our phones our hard drives not
to mention the boxes of images as well
as videotapes at home movies that are
passed down to us from our family
members with legions of images coming at
us each day how do we keep the important
stories together some of us might put
them on social media getting likes and
adding to our never-ending streams
images but how do we keep the important
stories intact unlike Facebook or
Instagram our family albums were focused
our relatives and ancestors created
deliberate visual narratives they
curated their stories they started with
a sequence of images they put in one or
a series of books that told our story
and there were stories that were passed
down from generation to generation to
generation it helped us understand who
we were and grounded us in who we were
I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for 25
years and I’ve been using my family for
the graphic album to help me tell
personal stories about my ex immediate
and extended family I’ve been able to
make a living
using my family album but but it was one
particular film that helped me transform
my relationship to the album and opened
up a new space for me to engage in it at
a deeper level in 2000 January 2000 I
went to South Africa for the very first
time for my stepdads funeral little did
I know that it was going to be the
beginning of a film about him and the
other 12 disciples that that Nelson
Mandela had asked to leave the country
to create the anti-apartheid movement in
exile it was this album Lee’s album that
I brought with me back to South Africa
to reunite with the still-living
disciples you see my stepdad Benjamin
Poole a denying and I did not have the
easiest relationship him being a
traditional African father and me and me
being a rambunctious queer um
American son so you know even during the
difficult times especially during my
adolescence I would go down to his study
and look at his album documenting his
youth and having a way to understand
that when I brought the album back and
introduced it to the still-living
disciples their lives were changed
you see Lee was able to use his album
his archive photographs writings radio
broadcasts home movies to use as a tool
against apartheid also he became a
founding member of the anti-apartheid
radio division in the United Nations and
he documented his family and his
community during the decades of exile
like the myth of Odysseus everyone knows
that myth trying to get home from the
Trojan War Lee left South Africa to
spread the anti apartheid mission
globally and was only able to go back
30 years later his album helped him
remember the home he was forced to leave
behind but 30 years later who remembers
you what I found in bluefin tain the
city that he lived with lived in and
left was that there was very little
visual images of the city’s long history
of anti-apartheid movement and there was
very little visual material on the 12
from bloom contain leaves album helped
fill these gaps I wanted to use the
album to activate communal memory I had
the idea to invite young South African
actors to join me on this journey to
look at these album and help us to
reenact the narratives that led to their
exile many of these youth were actually
neighbors of these anti-apartheid heroes
but did they know who they were were
they done
no this film twelve disciples of Nelson
Mandela helped transform all of us it
allowed me to connect the generation
that came before me with the generation
that came after me
the result was these young South African
actors were able to walk in the
footsteps of these heroes while
performing the history of their city the
still-living disciples and their
families were able to reconnect with the
poignancy and significance of their
journeys and the sacrifices they made
with that 30-year exile through a
synthesis of archive and remembrance we
were able to expand the story of the
South African liberation struggle to
include the city of bloom Fontaine while
inspiring young South Africans to
thought how could I bring this story
back to America how could I bring this
experience back to America to help us
understand who we are to help us bring
out of boxes from attics bring images
that of suppressed stories hidden
stories to show us who we are as
Americans and mulling this over I came
across the concept of a reunion a family
reunion one that could transform our
relationship to the family album how
many people have been to family reunions
how many people love family reasons
yay so this family reunion made up of
people who are not necessarily connected
by blood would be a meeting place a
place that would bring us together
across our differences that would allow
for a space of us to celebrate ancestors
through our shared storytelling a place
of mutual respect love and remembrance
these family reunions around the digital
around the family photograph would help
us understand our shared connections and
provide a space of healing we decided to
call it digital diaspora family reunion
because we as Americans are descendants
of migrants of one sort or another we’re
all part of diasporas and connected to
other places and other people but we’re
also connected to one another through
the shared experience of being human
celebrating birthdays gatherings with
loved ones or new experience like riding
a bike falling in love or getting
together for a TED talk so in 2009 we
had our first digital desk for a family
reunion roadshow and back in 2009
believe it or not many people didn’t
have any of their images digitized so
people showed up with boxes and trunk
loads of images wanting to share these
with us so we said okay let’s make a
selection of 15 to 20 images that tell a
story I’m a filmmaker right I specialize
in storytelling so we would scan these
15 to 20 images and record people’s
stories around them then we’d give them
a scanned copy of their image as a disc
and we would upload the edited photo
shares to our YouTube channel through
this process of sharing intimate family
stories people begin to understand that
their family albums were not just did
not just have sentimental value but they
actually contain the stories of our
people also were discovering new things
about the photographs they lived with
all their lives
such as a young woman who came with an
image of her great-grandmother she
opened the frame to share the image with
us and behind that was a second image
hidden by the first you can imagine a
surprise to discover the second image of
her grandmother that she hadn’t that
great-grandmother that she had never
seen before but not only that she and
her great grandmother looked uncannily
alike even down to the same hairstyle
people shared with us that they had
never told these stories to their family
members the young father with a toddler
in his arms who shared a picture of him
with his brothers and realized on camera
at that very moment that this was the
last image of them his voice cracking
and tears coming down his face his
brother had recently passed after these
one in one photo shares we would gather
people together the entire community
together to share our findings we
invited curated guests up to the stage
as well as audience members and they
would take turns telling their story
about the photographs that were now
blown up to the size of cinema and a
meta-narrative emerged around the images
and stories of this community such as
the two cousins who met for the very
first time connected by a photo a name
and a story or the young man who brought
an image of his grandfather unaware of
what the insignia on his army uniform
met until a war a war war two veteran in
the audience shouted it out or
acquaintances who unbeknownst to dad
realized that their families had been
after listening to thousands of photos
about photographs I realized that people
made selections of the images they were
going to share thinking they were going
to share a certain story but when they
share these personal stories it opened
up the communication of the heart and
the heart has its own song its own
dimension different than the mind these
photo photo sharing events were allowing
us to have a heart mind connection one
that spanned time and geography they
allowed us to enter into another space
that to share different dimensions of
ourselves I am the child I’m the great
grandchild I’m the mother I’m the father
I’m the friend I’m the neighbor
I’m the teammate of so and so and so and
so and so and so I am we are connected I
too have a journey and I could learn
from the journey of others and listening
and witnessing the stories and the
photographs over 50 different cities I
realized that we needed to magnify this
project we needed to reach more people
to tell them the importance of their
family photographic albums if we wanted
to create a new national inclusive
family album that would reach not
hundreds not thousands but hundreds of
thousands or more of images and stories
that showed America and all our
we needed to create a TV show so we
began a TV show called family pictures
USA through a mix of television social
media and live events we are traveling
around the country looking at cities and
rural communities through the lens of
our family photographs to enlarge our
understanding of history ourselves each
other will meet people who are saving
family albums and archives and reuniting
them with communities and families will
be inspired by people doing creative
things to keep their albums generative
and relevant
we will help shape the way we see
America through the lens of our family
albums and like my grandfather who
didn’t stop shooting until he got the
perfect shot we’re gonna keep on the
family pictures USA until everyone in
America understands the treasure trove
that is our family album and that how we
can come together collectively with our
hearts and our minds in the construction of a new national family album
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