By: Elspeth Brown, Thy Phu, and Jennifer Orpana
Queering Family Photography
On April 21st, 2018, the Queering Family Photography exhibition opened at Stephen Bulger Gallery, in conjunction with artist Sunil Gupta’s exhibition, Friends and Lovers – Coming out in Montreal in the 70s.
Queering Family Photography explored the critical work that queer, trans, and two-spirited family photos do in documenting and creating queer modes of belonging, and how our emotional attachments to queer family photographs have also sustained LGBTQ2+ lives. The show traced how queer, trans, and two-spirited people draw on photography to redefine family to include queer kinships outside the heteronormative, nuclear family model. It considered the social, political, and technological factors that structure queer kinship, and the ways that LGBTQ2+ communities creatively reimagine family, linking public and private spheres together. The images on display captured fleeting moments of love and desire, as well as generational bonds, which are often fractured by a normalizing state and culture.
Queering Family Photography was curated by Elspeth Brown (lead) and Thy Phu, with the assistance of Sajdeep Soomal, Richard Fung, Mark Kasumovic, Tori Abel, Lucie Handley-Girard, and Sarah Parsons. It featured over 100 photographs, as well as oral histories, collected through The Family Camera Network, and loans from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA, now The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives), a partner in this project, and from the Two-Spirited Collection at the University of Winnipeg Archive. It was organized by The Family Camera Network and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, with the support of Western University, Stephen Bulger Gallery, and York University. The exhibition was on display from April 21st to May 26th and it was a featured exhibition in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
Queering Family Photography was presented in three thematic sections: "Instant Intimacies," "Domesticities," and "Publics." The exhibition also included a selection of albums in vitrines, as well as a video projection that showcased FamCam participants and their stories.
The first section of the exhibition explored photographic technologies that enabled a sense of “instant intimacy,” through a small selection of Polaroid photographs and prints of digital images. Candid Polaroid prints from the 1970s-1990s brought desires into view while limiting the threat of public exposure at a time when non-normative sexualities and genders were strictly surveilled and policed. This technology of instant intimacy has also captured and created camp, queer humour, and two-spirited kinship during moments of levity and connection. Although the demise of Polaroid coincided with the digital turn, its influence persists in the era of social media, which embraces the immediacy and spontaneity that older instant cameras introduced. In “Instant Intimacies,” viewers experienced Polaroids of friends hanging out, in drag, and at parties. The digital images in this section included: selfies, a screenshot from a LiveJournal chat room for trans women, and a screenshot of a son and his parents as they connect from their respective homes in Toronto (Canada) and Mumbai (India).
Through a display of over thirty photographs hung in a salon style, “Domesticities” examined how family photos also shape domesticity as an ideology that forms gender roles and polices sexuality in a way that intersects with the public sphere. LGBTQ2+ people make and remake family by creating domestic images that redefine normative meanings of “daddies,” mothers, siblings, and kids. LGBTQ2+ people have reimagined these domestic descriptors in queer family photographs taken not only inside homes but also in public spaces: at the beach, in a stairwell, on the street, and elsewhere. “Domesticities” highlighted the generational bonds between parents and children, between romantic partners, and between strangers who, despite their brief connection, come together in defiance of norms and laws that criminalize queer desire and gender expression. Here, visitors saw the diverse types of images that compose family photo collections, including: baby pictures, school pictures, wedding photos, holiday snapshots, commercial images, and press photos.
LGBTQ2+ people draw on photography to expand and queer the notion of family through spectacular and quotidian means, including the highly visible spaces of the street and park, and less visible spaces such as bathhouses, coffeehouses, and clubs. Both types of spaces are pivotal for expressing queer desire yet are targets for state suppression. Events such as powwows provide opportunities to reflect further on two-spirited kinship in relationship to Indigenous cultures and queer modes of belonging. In a neoliberal era, however, many queer family spaces have become gentrified and commodified in a process that benefits some LGBTQ2+ community members while marginalizing others on the basis of class and race. The “Publics” section included photos taken during demonstrations and pride events, including images capturing: the “No More Shit” demonstration against the Toronto bathhouse raids (1981), a Zami gathering (1983), a Gay Men of African Descent march (1995), a Campaign for Equal Families demonstration (1995) and the 22nd Annual International Two-Spirit Gathering (2010).
The CLGA collection contains several family albums, which document travels and migrations, capture everyday moments and significant events, represent chosen families, memorialize friends and family members, and even acknowledge public figures in the medical profession who have been advocates for LGBTQ2+ people. The exhibition included a selection of these family photo albums and album pages in two vitrines. Some of these items included: a page with a “Spirituality in the 1990s” flyer by two-spirit activist Albert McLeod, Rupert Raj’s personal photo album featuring his cross-dressing friends, a family album with snapshots of author and photographer Terry David Silvercloud (formerly David Blair) growing up in Halifax, and an album with snapshots of Robert ‘Robbie’ Gaston Fortin, a Toronto and Vancouver-based Drag Star (a.k.a. Mrs. Wiggins), that was created by his mother for the Drag Hall of Fame after he passed away.
Video Projection: Queering Family Photography (2018)
A projection on the north wall of the exhibition space presented an original video directed by Thy Phu, and edited and animated by Maryam Golafshani and Mark Kasumovic, showing clips from oral history interviews collected by The Family Camera Network. In May 2016, The Family Camera Network launched a public archive project to collect and preserve family photographs and their stories, providing a resource for teachers, historians, and scholars to write new histories of photography, family, and Canada. At the time of the exhibition, the project had conducted over 30 interviews, including 16 oral history interviews with 13 queer and trans narrators about their family photographs. FamCam photographs and video interviews are preserved at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and at the Royal Ontario Museum. This video draws from interview footage in the FamCam archive at the CLGA.
Exhibition Outreach & Programming
Queering Family Photography reached broad audiences as one of the featured exhibitions of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Around 300 people visited the gallery during the opening event and the show saw between 25 to 50 visitors a day during its run. Several attendees wrote comments in the guestbook that expressed appreciation and gratitude for presenting a show that highlighted LGBTQ2+ experiences and families.
Remarking on the show and the audience it garnered at the gallery, Stephen Bulger commented:
The Family Camera Network also hosted a Queering Family Photography roundtable on April 26th, 2018. Acclaimed filmmaker Richard Fung moderated a panel featuring prominent two-spirited activist Albert McLeod, artist Sunil Gupta, and curators Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu. It was held at Hart House (University of Toronto) and explored the themes and content of Queering Family Photography and Friends and Lovers - Coming Out in Montreal in the 70s. This free public panel drew an audience of over 60 people.
Art critic Murray Whyte drew a connection between The Family Camera (Royal Ontario Museum, 2017) and Queering Family Photography, and noted that the images on display were, “warm in their simple truth – of the intimacy and comfort of nearest and dearest, a universal necessity that knows no gender or orientation.” Interviews with lead curator Elspeth Brown were also featured on Metro Morning, Toronto Life, Yohomo: Toronto Queer Culture Now, and CBC Arts.
Curators: Elspeth Brown (lead) and Thy Phu with Sajdeep Soomal
Exhibition Design: Thanh Phu
Collection Technician & Preparator: Tori Abel
Installation: Scott Poborsa