Thomas Allen Harris’s latest article in World Records Vol V: Beyond Story

October 27, 2021

While each of the four films I have made are quite different in their subject matter, they all share some overarching concerns. They required deep engagement with my family (and extended family) album in order to discover new archival materials and to launch new epistemological inquiries around the role of the family album as a basis for communal and intergenerational forms of storytelling. Community storytelling has been an integral methodology in these processes—whether it was placing the camera in the hands of queer family and friends in VINTAGE: Families of Value (1995); in the hands of strangers in É Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001); working with actors to collectively resuscitate forgotten oral histories in Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes (2005); or through the history of the African American representation in the national family album in Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014).

The family photographic album has been a leitmotif across my practice, allowing me to rethink the archive beyond nostalgic and personal lenses towards a means to examine and illuminate the cultural wealth of collective histories. This led me to the creation of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion in 2009, a socially engaged art project focused on recentering the family photo album in the digital age. I began this project at a moment when I felt like so much of image culture was moving more fully into the digital realm. As a result, I feared that the family photo album—an invaluable repository that frames the historical visual narratives of families across generation, gender, class, and race—was being left behind.

In 2016, my personal obsession with the family album pushed me even further, this time to create and host a national PBS series and community engagement project called Family Pictures USA. Working with local PBS stations, the series looks at neighborhoods and cities across the United States through the lens of family photographs, collaborative performances, and personal testimony sourced from communities. It also offers a model of outreach as production. We don’t simply elevate underrepresented stories. We also create new cultural links between various communities as we go, developing new structures through which Americans can imagine their collective histories. The resulting community events, art and new media installations, and non-fiction programs reveal roots, connections, and provocative parallels, refashioning a collective memory of place while inviting audiences to co-create a nuanced and diverse American family album with new and evolving frames of reference.

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