On June 13, 2017, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive's Digital Archivist, Lucie Handley-Girard, shared an update on the CLGA's collecting activities. She outlined some of the CLGA's goals and processes, and offered a glimpse of the CLGA's growing collection.
VISUAL STORIES BLOG
On April 11, 2017, Assistant Curator, Jennifer Orpana, shared an update on The Family Camera Network at the Royal Ontario Museum. She highlighted team training sessions, collecting activities, and partnerships to reveal some of the behind-the-scenes work involved in building the collection and preparing for The Family Camera exhibition (May-Oct. 2017).
The Reframing Family Photography conference was presented by The Family Camera Network on September 21 - 23, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). This academic conference brought together over 120 international scholars, curators, and students to critically examine the genre of family photography. It considered family photography in the context of recent historical shifts that have transformed conceptions of kinship, such as Cold War dislocations, the visibility of queer and trans family formations, transnational adoptions, and immigration policies.
The opening event was hosted at the Royal Ontario Museum on the evening of September 21. Conference participants and members of the public were invited to attend a panel that featured artists Jeff Thomas and Deanna Bowen, as well as the work of Dinh Q. Lê presented by Thy Phu. This panel was moderated by curators Sarah Bassnett and Jennifer Orpana. Each of the featured artists had artistic works that explored family photography on display in The Family Camera exhibition. These works included: Happy Father's Day (2015) and Husking and Braiding White Corn (2017) by Jeff Thomas, We Are From Nicodemus (2017) by Deanna Bowen, and Crossing the Farther Shore (2014; 2017) by Dinh Q. Lê. The panel explored the role of these, and other works by the participating artists, in relation to contemporary struggles for social and political change. Afterwards, the audience was invited to view The Family Camera exhibition and to enjoy an opening reception in the C5 Restaurant Lounge.
The next two days were held at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The first plenary session focused on key concepts related to the study of family photography. It was moderated by Thy Phu and Elspeth Brown, and it included leading scholars in the field: Marianne Hirsch, Martha Langford, Deborah Willis, Laura Wexler, and Gayatri Gopinath. Additional plenary sessions examined family photographs in relation to Indigenous Kinships (featuring Richard Hill and Carol Payne, moderated by Sarah Parsons), Collecting and Archiving (featuring Fiona Kinsey, Luce Lebart, Mark Sealy and Rahaab Allana, moderated by Elspeth Brown and Deepali Dewan), and Colonial and Carceral Contexts (featuring Tina Campt and Nicole Fleetwood, and moderated by Julie Crooks).
Over the course of the plenary sessions and an additional 12 panel sessions, the conference explored and historicized family photographs in the contexts of violence, migration, and dislocation. It gave scholars the opportunity to explore questions such as: How might the reproduction and circulation of family photos, or their loss due to sudden or violent dislocation, help connect and constitute communities shaped as a result of internal and global migrations? How has the digital turn altered the look and meaning of family photographs? How might we situate family photography within a broader history of photography and within contemporary art? How might collection and archival practices, as well as research design, open up or foreclose, analysis of family photographs and the political work they do?
The thoughtful research that was presented at the conference inspired many engaging conversations. Reframing Family Photography provided a forum for scholars to discuss and explore: the ethical commitments of researchers; the affective dimensions of family photographs; and the potential for family photographs to inspire political change. We are hopeful that this event sparked further collaborations on the topic of family photography and that it helped to contribute to the advancement of the field.
The Family Camera Network, The Family Camera exhibition, and the Reframing Family Photography conference were highlighted in "Luce Lebart's Best of 2017," which was published in the British Journal of Photography (31 December 2017).
Plenary Session: Key Concepts (22 Sept. 2017)
Featuring: Marianne Hirsch (Columbia University), Martha Langford (Concordia University), Deborah Willis (New York University), Laura Wexler (Yale University), and Gayatri Gopinath (New York University)
Moderated by: Thy Phu (Western University) and Elspeth Brown (University of Toronto)
Plenary Session: Indigenous Kinships (22 Sept. 2017)
Featuring: Richard Hill (Emily Carr University) and Carol Payne (Carleton University)
Moderated by: Sarah Parsons (York University)
Plenary Session: Collecting and Archiving Family Photographs (23 Sept. 2017)
Featuring: Fiona Kinsey (Museum Victoria, Australia), Luce Lebart (Canadian Photography Institute, Canada), Mark Sealy (Autograph ABP, UK), and Rahaab Allana (Alkazi Collection, India)
Moderated by: Elspeth Brown (University of Toronto) and Deepali Dewan (Royal Ontario Museum)
Conference Committee: Thy Phu, Elspeth Brown, Sarah Bassnett, Sarah Parsons, Melanie Wilmink, and Sajdeep Soomal
Conference Venues: Royal Ontario Museum and Munk School of Global Affairs (University of Toronto), Toronto, Ontario
Photography by: Mark Kasumovic (2017); Videography by: Katie Micak (2017)
OCAD U Course: Family Camera at the ROM
In 2016/2017, students in OCAD U's Digital Futures graduate course, "Family Camera at the ROM," were invited to create an immersive installation for The Family Camera exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Students had the opportunity to develop this work with the support and guidance of OCAD U faculty members, ROM staff, and FamCam collaborators. Click on the following links to read blog posts about this collaboration (each opens a new window). These posts were published on the ROM Blog.
The Living Room: Photography in the Public and Private (or Le salon : La photographie dans le public et le privé) (2 May 2017) by OCADU student writer, Maya Wilson-Sanchez
Collaboration, Family and Photography: The Process of Creating an Installation for The Family Camera Exhibition (27 Feb 2017) by OCADU student writer, Maya Wilson-Sanchez
The Living Room: Creative Team & List of Works Cited (3 May 2017)
OCAD U Graduate Course (2016/2017): Digital Futures: Family Camera at the ROM (DIGFS5003 & DIGFS5004)
Instructors: Martha Ladly (course director), Immony Men (creative & technical director), Julie Crooks (curatorial instructor), Jennifer Orpana (curatorial instructor)
Participating Students: Samaa Ahmed, Margarita Castro, Bijun Chen, Mudit Ganguly, Thom Jeffrey Garcia, Sara Gazzaz, Afaq Ahmed Karadia, Annette Mangaard, Ania Medrek, Katie Micak, Natasha Mody, Manik Perera Gunatilleke, Maya Wilson-Sanchez and April Xie.
by Nadya Bair
In memory of Abram Strizhevskiy, 1921-2013 and Mira Strizhevskaya, 1924-2016
I can’t remember when my dad gave me my grandfather’s digital camera. It might have been while my grandfather was still at the nursing home, or maybe it was after he died on May 24, 2013. I never used it. I came across it again last summer. That was when I turned it on – just to see if it still works.
That’s when I discovered the last photographs that my grandfather took. They weren’t pleasant.
My grandfather, Abram Strizhevskiy, developed Alzheimer’s in 2008. He was disoriented during his last year of living at home with my grandmother, Mira. He sat on the couch of his living room and took most of the photographs from there. Sometimes he turned the camera on my grandmother, and sometimes he’d photograph himself. In the months before he ran away in the middle of the night, covered in his pled, his plaid wool blanket, he thought he was in his Moscow apartment. He would say that the pictures on the wall were arranged just like in Moscow. He’d ask my grandmother whether he was. My grandmother wasn’t sentimental, but she was patient and practical. She’d say, you’re home, you’re in New York. Take a picture of the wall so that you can remember.
I don’t know if he photographed the wall because he was listening to her. He had been a photographer for most of his life, so taking pictures came naturally to him.
In his youth, my grandfather aspired to become a film maker. During World War II he was an aerial photographer with the Soviet Army but after the war, a new wave of anti-Semitism prevented him from finding work in Moscow. He spent nearly a decade as a traveling photographer, working his way through the provinces where he’d take family portraits. When he came back to Moscow, he found a job as an assistant to a camera operator. It was an unenviable job that mostly involved hauling equipment. So he went back to photography, running a portrait studio on Chernyshevsky street in Moscow from the late 1960s until we immigrated in March 1991.
After his death I found this photograph of him with a movie camera.
I hung it up in my living room because I wanted to remember his dream, because I love old cameras, and because I found it uncannily representative of 20th century history. In the foreground is Abram’s Jewfro, sticking up almost as high as the trees behind him. In the background is that quintessentially Russian landscape. Jews and modernity in the foreground, Russia and nature in the background. They’re not exactly at war, but they’re not at peace either.
When I was growing up in Moscow, I came to visit my grandparents on the weekends. There was a small forest near their building. My grandfather would take me there to look at the trees and then he’d show me how to draw them. I remember one fall when he brought watercolors and used the side of his brush to cover the page with different color leaves. I tried to master his technique.
On other days we’d set up a darkroom in his kitchen and develop photographs that he had taken of me, my dad, my grandmother. I still remember the smell of the chemicals.
In Queens, my grandparents lived near the Flushing Botanical Gardens. My grandfather never stopped loving the trees, nor the fall colors. He photographed them with his digital camera. Then he came back home to his apartment and watched TV.
I often think nothing confounded and upset my grandfather more than the digital camera he bought. He could deal with the war. He could deal with immigrating to America, and to the boredom and monotony of retired life. But he couldn’t adjust to a camera that kept its pictures hidden inside. He would look at them on the tiny camera screen and say, but how do you get them out?
My grandfather was stuck in his apartment, and in his unreliable mind. He tried to use his digital camera to make sense of what he saw, to jog his memory. But the pictures were stuck in the camera. I don’t think they helped.
“Where am I?”
“Take a picture and you’ll remember.”
“But how do I get them out?”
Next of Kin
By Kimberly Juanita Brown
In this image by Mark Seliger we see a woman representing a son, now gone, her family, community, and the work of social justice still before us. Lesley McSpadden was thrust into the media limelight on an August afternoon in 2014 when her 18-year-old son, Michael Brown, was shot to death by a police officer on Canfield Drive in Ferguson Missouri. We have seen, perhaps, dozens of photographs of this woman from that afternoon. In those images she is agitated, frustrated, angry and vigilant, as the events leading up to Brown’s death became known. McSpadden was swiftly on the scene of the killing after a neighbor told her what happened to her son. She wanted to lay her eyes upon him. To see her son. This is thus also a photograph that is an indictment of the viewer, a visual elegy for a son lost, and the silent testimony of a woman who has had her only child taken from her. In the image taken by photographer Seliger, McSpadden is looking directly into the camera, her clothing matching the black background that frames her face in this spatial configuration of mourning. She is photographed in the center of the image, as the mother without a child, enveloped in her loss. Yet she is also the next of kin, the witness representing her son and friend. He who was taken from her by force. She is the photographic memory of his face.
Mark Seliger takes photographs of celebrities and models for magazines like Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and GQ. McSpadden’s photograph by Seliger is a master class in comportment. In it, McSpadden is composed, but serious, stoic, yet somehow fully and vibrantly present. The visual void encasing her face in the image is hers to negotiate through the viewer, using the photograph as her apparatus of legibility—her testimony.
The photograph thus renders the viewer’s engagement within, but more importantly, beyond the cacophony of that devastating afternoon in August of 2014. This image necessitates quiet. The kind of silent offering Black Americans rarely receive in a venue (photography) where they are often rendered as damaged subjects with very little agency. Over the past four years there have been many examples of the devastating immediacy that attends African American engagements with public space, and the photographic production of this engagement (from Trayvon Martin to John Crawford III, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile). For the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, there was not just Michael Brown’s violent death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, but also the heavily reproduced image of Brown’s body lying in the middle of Canfield Drive for over four hours. As we know, African American engagements with public space are always already fraught with the inference of violence—past, present, and future. Claiming space, therefore, is a claim to citizenship, community and human rights. It is a determination to be seen, and this determination often functions as the civic pulse of the nation.
In an image of a single face returning the photographic gaze, we have the inference of shadow against light, mourning, healing, and the determination to be present before the dark void of loss. McSpadden’s image forces the viewer to think about who is not present in the photograph: her only child, her son and friend, Michael Brown, Jr.
On the Margins
By Linda Steer
At the end of Evicted, his beautifully written ethnography about poverty and housing in Milwaukee, Mathew Desmond writes: “I have been blessed by countless acts of generosity from the people I met in Milwaukee. Each one reminds me how gracefully they refuse to be reduced to their hardships. Poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity” (336). Desmond writes with empathy about families that are struggling in America and doing the best they can under harsh circumstances. His empathy is remarkable, for families at the margins – whether by poverty, or other forms of difference, such as drug addiction – are often the object of indifference, pity or contempt. Photographs of families who struggle can create or elicit these kinds of feelings especially when they circulate rapidly, online, in spaces that seem to produce instantaneous vitriolic judgment.
Take, for example, the recent two photographs of two adults overdosing on heroin in the front seat of their car while a small child sits in a car seat behind them. The woman’s face is death-like and gray; her head lolls forward as her body slumps towards the man, her shorts riding up and her shirt falling off. He is similarly posed, although his body is not as exposed. The photographs were taken by police in East Liverpool, Ohio, and, along with an incident report, were posted on the city’s Facebook page under the heading “Warning Graphic Content!” East Liverpool’s Facebook post has been shared 28,800 times, has received more than 5,000 likes, and over 3,500 each of angry and sad emoticons. The city claimed it was necessary to publish these photographs as a deterrent to drug use. Taking part in a long history of photographs of families in crisis used, purportedly, for “social good,” the photographs of the overdosing pair are not unique. While their objective might be to deter, instead they shame, judge, and exacerbate the otherness of those who suffer.
Taken as part of a police investigation, these are crime scene photographs that are to be used as evidence in court. They also happen to capture a moment of deep sadness and despair in one family. The child’s face was blurred once the photograph reached news media, but the initial post shows the faces of these three family members, and the two adults are named. Although first thought to be the child’s mother, the woman in the photograph is now reported to be the child’s grandmother who had recently been awarded custody of him. There are many other family members, not pictured here, who are connected to these traumatic images, for any family photographs operate in a web of connections. What of the child’s parents, who have already lost custody of their son? Or, the other family members who have now taken him in? How does the public act of shaming affect them, or hurt them? And, a 4-year-old boy will be forever attached to the destructive narrative about his family that is constructed through the circulation of the photograph.
Like Alberta and British Columbia, Ohio is the site of an epidemic in heroin use. This epidemic is made worse by the contamination of low-grade heroin with illegally produced fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate used in palliative care. It is a particularly deadly combination. We do need to know about the dangers of drugs, addiction, overdose. Sometimes, as in Evicted, the stories of those caught up in a crisis can help to draw attention to it, and that attention could, ostensibly, aid in making positive change. In order for those stories to be powerful, however, we need to be able to connect to them and feel empathy for the people depicted, both in words and in photographs. Desmond’s character of Scott, for example, allows us share and understand the depth of his struggles with fentanyl and heroin. We see him at his lowest moments, when after losing his place in a rundown trailer, he tries to get help with his addiction. In one particularly harrowing scene, a psychiatrist asks him about the sexual abuse he underwent as a child. The doctor asks him how old he was and Scott replies “Young. From four to [...] ten.” He then replies ‘no’ to the doctor’s questions about ever having told anyone and having or wanting treatment for it. Yet, Scott is the only person in Desmond’s book to find a way out of the cycle of poverty and eviction. He does so when he finally tells his mother he lost his nursing license for stealing drugs and asks for her help. But, both he and his family are protected by the pseudonym Desmond has given him. His story is raw, painful and powerful, but he retains his dignity for he is not named.
The ways in which the photographs of the pair in Ohio were taken (as part of a criminal investigation at the moment of near death), circulated (attached to an incident report and under a warning) and re-circulated (sensationalized on countless blogs and in online media with forums that allow hateful comments) preclude empathy and emphasize otherness. They use a family’s private moment of suffering and near death to reinforce ideas about addiction as moral failing and to elicit our collective outrage. And, encouraged by headlines like “HORRORS OF HEROIN Shocking moment drug addict couple pass out after overdosing on heroin with their TODDLER in the back seat of the car,” viewers participate in this outrage willingly, using phrases like “disgusting family,” “[parents] are beyond hope obviously!,” “skag heads as parents” and “two morons” to describe the adults depicted in the photographs. Even staid headlines such as the Globe and Mail’s “Images of allegedly overdosed couple in Ohio with boy in car go viral” draw comments like “that poor child will (& should) be taken away from these two dead beats.”
What purpose does this public shaming through photography serve, other than to further marginalize the family depicted? It contributes to the cause of drug addiction, which is often rooted in unbearable pain, including shame. Opiates are painkillers; this is why they work so well when we are recovering from surgery, or dying from cancer. And, as Gabor Maté has pointed out, “we ‘feel’ physical and emotional pain in the same part of the brain (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, 155). People who take opiates are trying to alleviate overwhelming pain. East Liverpool’s police photographs depict two people in so much pain that they are willing to court death to find relief. The circulation of the photographs only creates more suffering, more shame for those who take drugs, and more misunderstanding for those who do not suffer the same kind of pain.
Instead of participating in the public shaming of families who are struggling with addictions, we could respond with empathy and ask one simple question: why are you hurting so much? And more broadly, why are so many people in such tremendous pain?
Brian Allen, one of three men responsible for the decision to post the photographs, explains his decision to The Daily Mail: “If we hadn't, Rhonda Pasek would have received a slap on the wrist and that little boy would have gone back to her - that's not going to happen now [..] I doubt she will see that child again.” And therein lies the pain.
Preserving and Caring for Vernacular Photographs: A Workshop with Monique Fischer
By Jennifer Orpana
On Tuesday, September 13th 2016, a classroom at The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was abuzz with anticipation, as over 30 participants prepared for a vernacular/family photography workshop, hosted by The Family Camera Network and The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Monique Fischer, a Senior Photograph Conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Centre (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, facilitated the workshop, which was entitled, “The Identification & Care of Photographs.”
For over two decades, Ms. Fischer has worked on the conservation of photographic materials. Collaborating with the Image Permanence Institute, she has developed A-D Strips, an award-winning tool that detects deterioration in acetate film. She has been awarded two fellowships by the J. Paul Getty Trust to investigate the longevity of digital output media and is a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).
The workshop explored the specific needs of vernacular photography: photographs largely taken by amateur or unknown photographers, which capture everyday moments of life, and which date back as early as the 19th century. Snapshots, photos in family albums, and born-digital images that are uploaded to social media sites, are just a few examples of vernacular photography. While in many ways, conservation issues are the same across the photographic spectrum, some issues are specific to the recent history of vernacular or amateur photography. These include: the lack of quality in certain kinds of colour film; the use of magnetic albums, which eventually cause damage to the photos they hold; and the long-term storage of digital photographs.
These are challenges that The Family Camera Network is confronting, as its members begin the process of collecting a range of photographs for the project’s public archives – from 19th-century daguerreotypes and albumen prints to contemporary colour prints and born-digital images. Ms. Fischer’s workshop addressed the different processes that have been, and are currently, used to produce vernacular photographs, as well as the unique storage and preservation needs of each type of image.
These issues and questions are relevant beyond collecting institutions, however. They are also important to anyone who inherits collections of old family photographs or is interested in preserving his our her own personal photographic collection. In fact, the NEDCC provides countless online resources on photographic preservation, which are useful to a wide range of vernacular photo collectors.
The morning session began with a lecture that helped to define vernacular photography and gave an overview of a number of types of photographs. Ms. Fischer covered 19th-century and early 20th-century photographic materials, photomechanical processes, colour materials, and digital output materials. Fischer then explained how different photographs show signs of deterioration, including visual clues, such as curling, fading, and abrading, as well as olfactory clues, including the vinegary smell of deteriorating cellulose acetate film and the musty scent of mold. She also addressed preventative tips and strategies including the optimal storage temperatures for different types of photographs, the best materials to use for photographic storage, and the proper handling of photographic materials.
After lunch, 15 participants were invited into the storage area of the ROM to experience the process of identifying photographs first-hand. Armed with a photo-identification chart from James M. Reilly’s book, Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints (1986), and specialized magnifying tools, small groups tackled stacks of unknown photographs. Participants scrutinized each image. This exercise filled the usually quiet storage area with ebullient chatter, as they asked each other questions: “Can you see the paper fibres?” “Do you see how the image is abraded?” “Is there a greenish tone to this image?” “Can you see a slight sheen on the surface?” Participants encouraged each other with such comments as, “You have to see this letterpress half tone through the microscope!” and excitedly announced, “We got it right!” Ms. Fischer’s guidance throughout this exercise was invaluable as participants took on the problem-solving involved in photo-identification. Participants from OCADU's Digital Futures course commented that the workshop enabled them to better understand the "complexity and time consuming nature of the early processes and gave them much more appreciation of those photographs as artifacts."
At the end of the workshop, Ms. Fischer offered a brief consultation on the continued care and preservation of various photographic objects in the ROM Collection, including: the Kaiser-i-Hind album of studio samples (post 1876-1900), a carte-de-visite album from the Cyrus and Ruth Jhabvala Collection (c.1890s), an extremely fragile album of albumen prints representing the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Hyderabad (1889), a handful of negatives from a field study in varying stages of deterioration (c.1970s); and some photographs from The Family Camera Network public archive, including contemporary snapshots and digital files.
The group of participants was a mix of ROM staff and interns, members of The Family Camera Network Collecting Team, volunteers at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, instructors and graduate students from OCAD University’s Digital Futures “Family Camera at the ROM” course, and students from Ryerson University’s Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management program. While the participants represent diverse interdisciplinary fields, they share a keen interest in the identification and care of family photographs.
Ms. Fischer’s expertise enabled participants to identify key problems in photo preservation and to understand resources in addressing these problems.
Picturing Families in Black and White
By Gabrielle Moser
Family photographs originate and often circulate in the private sphere of the home, but what kinds of political work do they do when they enter the public space of the newspaper? This question preoccupies me whenever I look at the ways photographs functioned in The Clarion, a monthly newspaper founded in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946 and edited by Dr. Carrie M. Best. The Clarion aimed to address racial discrimination across the province, announcing in its first issue that it would “tell... readers how much their help is needed in our Community, and from time to time inform you of the progress we are making.” The first African-Canadian–owned publication in Nova Scotia, The Clarion focused on local issues—such as the hiring of a new pastor at the local church “of our own race,” announcements about moves of local residents, high school graduations, marriages, and even the sharing of recipes from readers—but consistently linked them to political events happening nationally and internationally, weaving together everyday Black life in Canada and early-twentieth century struggles for civil rights.
This meshing of home life and public life is evident the first time photographs appear in The Clarion, in December 1946. In this issue, a story about Viola Desmond appears on the front page, detailing her arrest, accompanied by a bust-length studio portrait of the Halifax beautician at the top of the page. Under the title “Takes Action,” the story tells readers a now-familiar story: that Desmond was arrested and fined $20 for sitting in the downstairs area of the Roseland Theatre cinema in New Glasgow while holding a ticket for the balcony, a space implicitly segregated and reserved for “colored people.” The Clarion’s coverage of the event ends with a biography of Desmond, outlining her education and family members, and includes an appeal for readers to donate to her legal defense fund through the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NSAACP). Although her family does not appear in the photograph illustrating the story, the inclusion of information about Desmond’s relatives in the text uses familial affiliation to make a claim for the community’s collective action, a gesture that recurs throughout the 10-year lifecycle of The Clarion.
In 1947, when The Clarion moved to a bi-monthly publishing schedule, the link between family belonging and community belonging became explicit. The February issue introduced a series of portraits on the front cover, starting with the Prevoe family of Halifax. Mr. William Prevoe, an employee of the Canadian National Railway, sits with his arm around his wife, Evelyn, while their daughter, Brenda Carol, perches on the arm of the couch, positioning her slightly above her two parents, one arm casually draped on her mother’s shoulder. Like the Desmond portrait, the caption for the image describes the various family members relationally, making connections to other individuals in the New Glasgow and Halifax black communities and to local and state institutions. Subsequent issues, featuring group portraits of the Phyllis Wheatley Business Girls Club and the Criterion Club, follow the same format. The reproductions of the photographs in the newspaper, available to us in the present only in the streaky gradation captured by microfilm, are often grainy and soft focused, hinting at the snapshot quality of the events at which these groups were captured. But the poses of the sitters are uniformly formal, with subjects facing the camera, usually at an oblique angle, and almost always dressed in the formal attire of suits, ties and, for women, dresses and even sometimes corsages.
Unlike the story on Viola Desmond, the rest of the family and group portraits featured on The Clarion’s covers are not illustrations of an urgent story of civil rights violations, but are offered without explanation. Clearly the need for readers and viewers to see and to share these portraits was obvious to everyone, and needed no further justification. As Tina M. Campt writes, these photographs demonstrate the medium’s role in producing “subjects in becoming,” articulating “forms of identification and subjectivity that perhaps, at the time, had yet to be articulated.” As part of my broader study of how citizenship was pictured in Canada before it was legally codified in 1947, I am interested in how The Clarion’s use of photography--especially its use of portraiture and family photographs--enabled its readers to claim rights to national belonging and political equality in a moment when Canadian laws offered no such protections, particularly for diasporic groups, immigrants, and indigenous peoples.
One obvious reference point for The Clarion’s framing of family photographs as representations of belonging was the use of images in The Crisis, the official magazine for the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1910 by W.E.B. DuBois and still in publication today. The Crisis employed photography in its pages and on its cover as early as 1919, and consistently used portraits of African American youth, in particular, to signal the importance of education and the arts in developing what DuBois called the “Talented Tenth”: the group of exceptional intellectual and political leaders who would help to steer the development of African Americans across the country, if given the right educational and professional opportunities. Their annual education issue, for instance, featured high school graduation portraits prominently on their front cover. These positive representations of blackness served as an important counterarchive to the images of racial inferiority circulating at the time, and to the spectacle of black death constructed by lynching postcards, as Shawn Michelle Smith has argued, “offering a place from which a counter-history can be imagined and narrated, and... underscoring the ways in which both identities and history are founded, at least partially, through representation.” Importantly, this counterarchive would have also permeated the space of the home, as copies of The Crisis arrived on newsstands and to subscribers, changing hands and entering the same living rooms and studies where family photo albums were also stored and displayed.
The publication of family photographs and studio portraiture on The Clarion’s front page was an effort to imagine another counter-history and, much like The Crisis, promoted the successes of black Nova Scotians to readers. But by placing these images alongside stories of racial discrimination, segregation and even violence, The Clarion went even further, suggesting that domestic life and political life are not discontinuous with one another. The political work that family photographs perform in the pages of The Clarion is subtle, but it insists that the forms of exclusion and erasure that black Canadians experienced were not exceptional, but in fact written into the logic of belonging in the country at this time, seeping into visual representations of even the most banal events. It is telling that, after Canada’s first citizenship laws were enacted in 1947, the paper changed its name to The Negro Citizen in 1949, and expanded its circulation nationally, but its content remained the same, demonstrating that the universal promise of equal rights offered by citizenship was unevenly applied, and continued to be determined by racial differences.