What Family Photos Reveal About National Identity

The Royal Ontario Museum is staging an exhibition devoted to snapshots—and what it means to be Canadian

In March 1979, Hon Lu stood in Narita International Airport in Tokyo as his family was en route to Canada. In one photograph, the little boy is dwarfed by the nose of a plane just the other side of the terminal’s windows. The image shouts some clues about the era: The vinyl seating, striped turtlenecks, and blue pants that flare out at the ankles help place it in a timeline. But the family history contained within the image would be invisible to a casual viewer.

Lu’s mother was an avid amateur photographer, and when the family fled Vietnam, they had to leave their archive behind. The family members who remained sent the photographs along via boat, and the family reunited with the collection in Hong Kong, where the refugees stopped over before continuing on to Canada. Along the way, the family picked up a new camera and documented the legs of their journey. Stuffed into those suitcases heaped next to Hon Lu, mingled with a tangle of coats and bags, are the family’s photographs, says Thy Phu, the principal investigator at the Family Camera Network. “The story of the family’s journey is also the story of the photograph’s journey from one place to another,” she says.

The Family Camera Network, launched in 2016, is a three-year investigation into the stories behind Canadian family photos. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, it’s a partnership between more than 25 researchers and six institutions, including the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

The goal is to explore how photographs capture and reflect definitions of family, and how connections bridge dislocations, migrations, and geographies. The project collaborators invited Canadian citizens or permanent residents aged 18 and older to donate a photo and be interviewed about the image. Some 200 of these photographs are on view in “The Family Camera,” an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.

Donations have ranged from a single photograph to flash drives containing upwards of a thousand images. Each will be preserved by the ROM.

“Our great-great grandchildren should be able to see these types of artifacts,” whether the photograph is digital or a hard copy, says Deepali Dewan, the Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art & Culture at the ROM. The task, she adds, is twofold: to freeze the photograph in time and halt the process of degradation, and to prevent the image from becoming uncoupled from its story.

The project, she says, speaks to families in a moment of transition between the analog and digital. Maybe these prints have exchanged hands as older relatives pass them down, and the recipients feel that the images are precious, but don’t know quite what to do with them.

“The idea is to try to capture or save those collections before they probably would get lost to the anonymous dust bin or eBay or a used bookstore within a generation,” Dewan says. Once an image is orphaned, she adds, it’s hard to recover the history that produced it.

Those lost stories are mourned in a companion show, at the nearby Art Gallery of Mississauga. In that exhibition, the artist Dinh Q. Lê—who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam to escape the Khmer Rouge—has fabricated a sculpture made from found photos salvaged from Vietnam between the 1940s and ‘80s. The installation, “Crossing the Farther Shore,” stitches together the images in a way that obscures some of the photos’ faces but highlights annotations on their backs. These orphan images become proxies or surrogates for photos that were lost or destroyed as families moved.

To cement the relationship between the image and its history, the Family Camera Network team sits down with each photograph’s donor for an interview. The researchers pepper the interviewee with questions about the photo itself: Who took it? Who are the people in it? What position did this image occupy in your home? Was it displayed prominently on the wall, or tucked away in a box?

“Every single interview has always turned up a compelling moment and a fascinating photo, and you can’t tell from the outset when that’s going to be,” Phu says. In one case, Dewan explains, an image that appeared to depict a girl blowing out her birthday candles actually captured something different: the girl was the cousin of an adopted daughter who hadn’t yet arrived; the family was throwing a birthday party in her honour.

Phu notes that it can be an “act of courage to be able to come out and say, ‘my story is worthy of being told,’” perhaps especially for members of groups who don’t often see their experiences reflected by mainstream institutions.

The project adopts an expansive definition of what constitutes a family photo. The definition encompasses state-produced images, such as refugee identity photos, issued to migrants fleeing the Indochinese crisis in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. The government distributed these shots—often front-facing portraits or images of subjects posing next to the boats that carried them—to the families entering Canada, some of whom clipped them into their personal albums.

Individual images add up to a national story—and one that leaps across borders as families pass through them. Canada’s urban centers are widely diverse—in 2006, a full half of Toronto’s residents were born outside of the country—and many families have roots elsewhere. For many Canadians, family history is bound up with loss, separation, war or upheaval—and the photos speak to that in a deeply personal way, simultaneously highlighting separations and collapsing them.

“We often think of the Canadian family photo as things that are taken in Canada,” Dewan says. “But the reality is that Canadian family archives have contained photos that have been taken all around the world.”

This story was written by Jessica Leigh Hester, a senior associate editor at City Lab, where it first appeared. “The Family Camera” is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum through October 29, 2017. “The Family Camera: Missing Chapters” is on display at the Art Gallery of Mississauga through August 27, 2017.