Picturing the family: media, narrative, memory

Dr Silke Arnold-De Simine, Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, discusses family photographs and cultural memory – the subject matter of her new book, co-edited with Dr Joanne Leal.

In the summer of 2005, during a Visiting Fellowship at the ANU in Canberra, I came across a rather eerie notice in a display cabinet of a small campus exhibition only to see it again and again in the following weeks at the beginning of television programmes and cinema screenings. It advised spectators to ‘use caution viewing these photographs/films, as they may contain images or voices of dead persons’. At first I was puzzled but then I came to understand that in aboriginal society, where people traditionally live in extended family groups, it is considered a taboo to refer to a dead person by name or to look at photographs or film footage of the deceased, partly out of respect but also to avoid painful memories.

As a scholar I was of course reminded of Roland Barthes’s iconic winter garden photograph of his late mother as a young girl, which he famously describes but refuses to share with his readers, and of W.G. Sebald’s omissions in his books, in which family photographs – some reproduced as actual images, some only described – conjure up a mournful mood. What makes photographically captured moments so powerful that they stay with us as a form of ‘afterimage’ even if they have been evoked in another medium such as language? It made me think about what difference it makes if we remember through language, through images, both still or moving, or a combination of mimetic and non-mimetic representations. While it draws out questions around mediated memory, the affective power of photography and the related tropes of death, loss and mourning, my Australian experience was also a stark reminder of the historical and cultural specificity of our encounters with photographs.

The contexts in which we peruse family photographs can be marked as a sad occasion (for example after the death of a family member) or a joyous moment in life (celebrations, birthdays or anniversaries). The viewing experience will not only be influenced by what is depicted and by the occasion that triggers a re-viewing, but also by the formats in which these images are available to us. Are they carefully collected and even annotated in a family album, stored away in shoeboxes or (half-)forgotten in attics? Or are these records of cherished or important moments at our fingertips on camera phones to be shown to a wide circle of acquaintances? Are they framed and on display in homes or in (semi-)public spaces such as social media or archived and exhibited in museums? Do they circulate across different media? Have they gone through a period of being lost, together with the identity of those depicted, to resurface in archives, junk shops or eBay auctions?

If the photographs or photo albums have been displaced and the oral forms of communication which accrue around them have been lost, if they themselves have no annotations or captions, they can be full of mysteries and invite imaginative investment: not only the questions of who and what the photograph shows, but also why, how, where and when it was taken are open to speculation. Who is behind the camera lens? Who do these people in the photograph look at, smile at, frown at? Once they have forfeited their function as family memento, family photographs can lead a complicated after-life in which they become decontextualised and recontextualised, triggering and shaping memories, inviting storytelling, helping us negotiate the past and the future, deconstructing and reconstructing notions of family, kinship and community, and helping us cope with ruptures and (re)establish connections and elective affinities in empathic encounters.

It is important to remember that we perform our identities in relation to the cultural contexts that shape who we are. How we practice intimacy and share our lives with others is determined by the very specific family dynamics in which we grew up, just as much as it depends on the media technologies that are at our fingertips, but it is also historically and culturally contingent. The boundaries between what is considered private and what can be shared with a wider public have experienced a seismic shift over the last few decades: from chat shows and reality TV to social media, blogs and YouTube, ‘sharing’ has become part of how we define our identity as connected beings. We are encouraged to connect to ‘Others’ through empathy, a feeling of relatability that is very much modelled on the notion of kinship and just as often limited by it.

With the increased mobility of people across the globe and the encounters resulting from this, it becomes more and more necessary to question what we mean by ‘family’, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, to reconceive these concepts so that they enable us to understand and come to terms with the complex realities that we will have to face and to enable us to build alternative modes of social belonging and new forms of community.

These are some of the themes that are explored in this collection of essays (edited by myself and Joanne Leal) that introduces a dialogue between academic, creative and practice-based approaches. From the act of revisiting and reworking old, personal photographs to the sale of family albums through internet auction, each of the twelve chapters presents a case study to understand how these visual representations of the family perform memory and identity.

Picturing the Family is available from Bloomsbury. 

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Discover Our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Heike Bauer of the Department of English and Humanities writes about her current research activity.

Dr Heike Bauer

Dr Heike Bauer

What is your current topic of research?

I’m working on an AHRC-funded book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. It examines how attack and persecution shaped the development of a collective sense of same-sex identity in the first half of the twentieth-century

Why did you choose this topic?

The book addresses a gap in the scholarship: the realization that, while we know of many lives which have ended tragically as a result of legal persecution, violent attack or the inability to cope with heteronormative social and emotional pressures, we know surprisingly little about the traumatic impact of these deaths on the shaping of modern queer culture.

I have come to this realization via a chance encounter in the archive. In my previous book, English Literary Sexology, I explored the emergence a modern vocabulary of sex – words such as homosexuality and heterosexuality – and how the new ideas were transmitted from German science into English literary culture.

It was during the completion of this project that I first came across the work of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a hugely influential Jewish doctor and reformer. He is best known today for his homosexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin in 1919. I found, however, that Hirschfeld was also a chronicler of hate and violence against people who were figured to be, in his words, ‘different from the others’ because of their gender or sexual desire.

He wrote, for instance, about the trial and death of Oscar Wilde, and how it affected the men who identified with Wilde; and he collected the first statistical figures on female and male homosexual suicide, arguing that persecution and social denial played a significant role in why (some of these) people felt their lives were unliveable. The realisation that these writings have yet to be explored was the starting point for The Hirschfeld Archives.

What excites you about this topic?

This is the first study to examine narratives about queer death, suicide and injury for the insights they provide into how such suffering was understood at the time. There is a thrill – as well as a sense of responsibility – in working with texts and images that have been overlooked or forgotten.

What is challenging about the research?

Arguing that negative experiences, as much as affirmative politics and subculture formation, shaped modern queer culture, the book addresses a critical paradox: that despite political gains and related social transformations, queer lives all too often remain precarious, subject to attack and rejection, because they do not fit real and imagined norms about what it means to live in a certain time and place, and in a body whose gender and desires challenge powerful but often difficult-to-bring-into-view social norms. The challenge in presenting this research is to make sure that it cannot be misconstrued: just because there is violence in queer history does not mean that queerness equates misery. You might be surprised about how important it is even today to be clear about this point.

What is your favourite thing about your work?

The history of sexuality is today a thriving academic field. I come to it from a feminist perspective and a background in literary and culture studies. I enjoy being able to test and develop my ideas in dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines. My most recent book, for example, a collection of essays entitled Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World, brings together literary scholars, historians, translation scholars and experts in gender studies who work on sexual cultures in Europe, Peru, Asia, and the Middle East. It is a real privilege to be part of such collaborations. I similarly enjoy working with my PhD students, and supporting the development of projects that can make a real intervention in existing scholarship.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

The humanities are vital to making sense of the world, laying bare the often hidden norms that govern society, and critically and creatively expanding not only what (we think) we know, but also how we know it, and to what the effect. In terms of my own project, there are obvious benefits to developing a better understanding of LGBTIQ history. As part of the AHRC Fellowship, for instance, I discussed my research with health professionals in a workshop on violence in queer and trans lives. But as the research comes to a close, I think it’s fitting to turn around the question and also consider the impact of everyday life on my research. Discussing work-in-progress with non-academic audiences has been a vital part of the development of this project, challenging me to be clearer about the claims I made, and reminding me that the sorrows and joys of queer history are very much alive today.

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