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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Parenting by older mothers brings benefits to children

This post was contributed by Professor Jacqueline Barnes, Department of Psychological Sciences.

CroppedWhile increasing maternal age, especially for women from their mid to late 30s onwards, is linked to the likelihood of more medical risks for mother and infant, recently published  research by my team at Birkbeck, with colleagues at UCL, indicate that this change to older motherhood could lead nationally to better child health and development, and to fewer parenting problems. The studies, based on two large samples – the Millennium Cohort Study and the National Evaluation of Sure Start – found that:

  • The risk of children having unintentional injuries requiring medical attention or being admitted to hospital both declined with increasing maternal age. For example, at three years the risk of unintentional injuries declined from 36.6% for mothers aged 20 to 28.6% for mothers aged 40 and hospital admissions declined, respectively, from 27.1% to 21.6%.
  • The rate of complete immunisations by three years of age increased with maternal age up to 27 years.
  • Child Language development at ages three and four years was associated with improvements with increasing maternal age, with scores for children of mothers aged 20 being lower than those of children of mothers aged 40 by 0.21 to 0.22 standard deviations.
  • Increasing maternal age was associated with fewer socio-emotional problems. Children of teenage mothers had more difficulties than children of mothers aged 40 (difference 0.28 SD at age 3 and 0.16 SD at age 5).
  • Reported parent/child conflict decreased as maternal age increased.
  • The use of harsh discipline such as smacking was low for teenage mothers and highest in the mid-twenties, after which it declined.
  • Positive and responsive parenting generally increased with maternal age up to about age 40 after which it plateaued.
  • The least home chaos and the most stimulating home environments were identified for mothers in their early 30s.

This research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was initiated in the knowledge that maternal age was increasing in the UK. It has demonstrated that, while there are many medical reasons why close attention should be given to the physical well-being of older mothers and their infants both during pregnancy and immediately after birth, an increase in older motherhood should not necessarily be a cause for concern in relation to subsequent parenting. Indeed, it is likely that older mothers will be preparing their children well for preschool and school experiences in a warm and responsive home environment. The findings of fewer unintentional injuries with increasing maternal age and fewer child socio-emotional problems may suggest that women with more life experiences may be able to draw upon a wider range of support that can help to reduce some of the stress of parenting. These studies are important for any families undertaking IVF or other forms of assisted conception, who are on average older than other first-time parents, and for women who have delayed motherhood, for whatever reasons.

This study has received media attention:

For more information see:

  • Sutcliffe, A.G., Barnes, J. Belsky, J., Gardiner, J., Melhuish, E.  (2012). Health of children born to older mothers in the UK. BMJ, 345:e5116 doi:10.1136/bmj.e5116
  • Barnes, J., Gardiner, J., Sutcliffe, A.G., Melhuish, E. (2014).  The parenting of young children by older mothers in the United Kingdom.  European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 11(4), 397-419.
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Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory

This post was written by Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine, Senior Lecturer in Memory and Cultural Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of European Languages and Cultures. There will be a conference held at Birkbeck on 10-11 July on ‘Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory‘; and an exhibition in the Peltz Gallery from 3-25 July, entitled ‘Family Ties: Reframing Memory‘.

© Rosy Martin 'In Situ' - from the forthcoming Family Ties Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery

© Rosy Martin ‘In Situ’ will be on display at the forthcoming Family Ties Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery

The family is seen as a privileged site of memory transmission both in terms of the stories which are told and passed down the generations as communicative memory, but also in terms of the unspoken and unspeakable memories which are acted out in families and passed on to children without ever being acknowledged. Marianne Hirsch has introduced the concept of ‘postmemory’, something that Abraham and Torok describe as ‘transgenerational haunting’, the ‘phantom effects’ that haunt the children of parents who have lived through unprocessed traumatic events or repressed and shameful secrets. The concept of ‘transgenerational haunting’ is not simply extended to or replicated on a collective level when the history of the nation is seen through the paradigm of the family: shared phantoms can be externalised and become inscribed in cultural practices in an attempt to ‘relieve the unconscious by placing the effects of the phantom in the social realm’ (Abraham 1994: 176) – phantoms which were never restricted to individuals to begin with but only ever existed in an interpersonal and intergenerational dynamic.

In contemporary commemoration culture the family has become the central trope through which national history is framed. Around the centenary of the First World War we are faced with a remembrance culture which relies in all its scripted rituals, TV programming and exhibition planning on the input of the public who is made to feel that they are provided with a forum for their stories, their family’s personal memories, rather than a top-down version of events. A pan-European website, Europeana 1914-1918, promises untold stories alongside official histories of WW1 and includes digitized documents and film material from libraries and archives but also 90,000 personal papers and memorabilia of some 7,000 people involved in the war, held by their families and digitised at special events – so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ –  in 12 countries. It provides access to ‘memories and memorabilia from families throughout Europe’ and users are encouraged to ‘contribute [their] own family history’. That the trope of the family is used to naturalise national alliances is not particularly new, variations on the concepts of ‘fatherland’ or ‘motherland’ can be found in many different languages and cultures, and the institutions of the family and the nation are reaffirmed and reaffirm each other in that process. However, the unpredictability of family stories can also provide an unsettling element and when current European heads of state are given the ‘Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC 1, 2004-) treatment, the results can be difficult to incorporate into an official narrative.

Roughly a year ago the German media reported that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s grandfather, Ludwig Kasner (Kazmierczak), who had been of Polish origin but was drafted into the German Army in 1915, had – after becoming a prisoner of war – joined the Blue Army, a unit that fought for Polish independence on the side of the Entente Powers which meant that he probably took part in fighting against Germany. But rather than using this information against Merkel, the image conscious German press celebrated the fact that this made her the most favored foreign politician in Poland. Merkel’s Polish colleague Donald Tusk also had a ‘grandfather affair’ of his own and knows all to well about the pitfalls of the wrong family history when it comes to the conflicts of the twentieth century. During the national elections of 2005, surveys showed him clearly in the lead, but when it was revealed that his grandfather had fought in the German Wehrmacht he lost to the National-conservative party of Lech Kaczynski.

These examples show that ‘picturing the family’ is an activity that is clearly fraught with unexpected dangers and while it can be used as a conservative and stabilizing force it can also lead to a defamiliarisation of the past and ask uncomfortable questions about the ways we define our identities in ‘imagined communities’ (Benedikt Anderson).

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Au pairing after the au pair scheme: new migration rules and childcare in private homes in the UK

This post was contributed by Dr Nicky Busch, Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies.

People in the UK work some of the longest hours in Europe and, for those with children, the difficulty in reconciling paid work with childcare involves not only time pressures but significant expense. It is no wonder that an increasing number of families in the UK have turned over their spare room (or in some cases a spare bed in the children’s room) to an au pair. After all, for between £65 and £100 a week, an au pair will look after children, cook, clean and generally be an extra pair of hands.

However, while au pairs do many of the same tasks as nannies, cleaners, maids and other domestic workers, au pairing has often been excluded from discussions of paid domestic labour as it is technically not defined as ‘work’. Au pairs have been understood in the media and in popular discourse as somewhere between students and working holiday makers and have generally been imagined as occupying a relatively privileged position without the same problems as domestic workers. This in part reflects the historical origins of the scheme: it was developed in the post-war years as a cultural exchange programme among European countries allowing young women – and it was only women – to travel to live ‘as an equal’ with a family in another country. They would provide help with household tasks in exchange for pocket money and the experience of living with a host family. The scheme was imagined as providing a small amount of extra household help to families facing the ‘servant crisis’, while also giving middle class young women training in running a home.

However, au pairing grew substantially during the 1990s and 2000s and au pairs are now depended upon by tens of thousands of British families to provide affordable, flexible childcare. The importance of au pairs as a source of childcare and domestic work – and recent changes to legislation covering au pairing in the UK – suggest the evaluation of au pairs as both privileged and protected needs to be revisited. The lives of au pairs, their working conditions and relationships with host families needs to be understood in light of changes to the scheme which mean that au pairs are now less differentiated from domestic workers and that they now lack protections in terms of remuneration and working conditions which previously existed.

The knowledge vacuum about this important form of migrant (mostly) female care and domestic work was a starting point for an ESRC funded research project on the au pair scheme being undertaken in the Department of Geography, Environment & Development Studies by Dr Rosie Cox and Dr Nicky Busch. We are particularly interested in the period since November 2008, when the au pair visa was abolished in the UK. This change, which was part of the move to the Points Based Immigration Scheme, meant sharply reduced government control of the au pair scheme just at the point when for many families in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, the problem of balancing work and home life has led an increasing number of people to turn to low waged labour of migrant women to perform childcare and domestic labour.

The project to date has involved assessing the available data sets to find out what we do and what we do not know about the number of au pairs in the UK and talking to key informants such as policy makers and domestic worker organisations about the effects of changes to the scheme on the ground. We are now at the stage of the project where we interview au pairs and their host families to build as deep a picture as possible of the way the scheme works and how people involved experience being an au pair or being a host family. We will then use our data to produce and disseminate academic material.

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