The pandemic has meant that many people are spending far more time with those closest to them. Over the past year, that has prompted Emmy Lee Wall, executive director of the Capture Photography Festival, to ponder the role of the camera in recording personal histories and family narratives.
“I think that photography has really been a tool through which family structures and family relationships have been defined,” Wall tells the Straight by phone. “If you think about people’s first experiences with photography, it’s generally with their family. Everyone is photographed when they’re born, typically by their parents or guardians—immediately.”
She also points out that people’s idea of what a “standard family” or a “good family” looks like is often defined by a family portrait. In these images, she says, family members are sometimes dressed in their finest attire or presented with their most treasured belongings.
“I think this interconnectedness between the definition of family and photography is really interesting,” Wall declares.
The local, national, and international artists in the exhibition use photography as a tool to investigate their family histories.
Indian-born, New York–based photographer Cheryl Mukherji, for example, says in an interview in the Capture Photography Festival catalogue that she decided to “reimagine and subversively recreate my mother’s matrimonial photographs”.
Over a five-year period, images were taken of her mother, who was then studying to become a surgeon, to attract a husband.
Mukherji hand-painted the imagery behind the self-portrait on the Straight’s cover. This represents how prospective Indian brides have often been shown: in front of art work or with objects reflecting aspects of their personalities.
In graduate school, Mukherji learned that a good portrait should capture the essence of a person. But in a YouTube interview, she says that matrimonial studio photography was not about this at all: it was about projecting the idea of a person onto another person.
Wall likens the image on the cover of this week’s Straight to an old-fashioned personal ad. “It’s like that era’s version of posting on some kind of dating site,” she says.
One of the Vancouver artists in the exhibition, Rydel Cerezo, said in the catalogue that he wanted to reflect on how members of his family changed physically during the pandemic. He readily conceded that his images "may lack social glamour, yet the idea of family in all of its banality felt intimately more full".
"The examples of being photographed by one’s parents and the idea of family presented through photography made me think of how family photographs have shifted more toward presenting 'success' in the age of Facebook," Cerzo said. "During that time, it became apparent to me that family albums live online and were typically presented in lieu of some sort of 'accomplishment'."
In Family Album, Italian-born artist Silvia Rosi explores her personal history through self-portraits of her appearing like her mother and her father, whose roots go back to Togo.
“In my work, there is the idea of showing my parents’ past but of doing it in a way that differs from images that might be found in a family album,” Rosi says in the Capture catalogue. “I wanted to activate a reverse process.”
She adds that her images do not reflect reality but rather “attempt to capture moments that are not always happy but that express the complexity of the individual”.
Toronto-based Dainesha Nugent-Palache’s mother liked to collect fragile figurines, which didn’t make sense to her as she was growing up. In her still-life photographs, the artist includes these objects, often in the background.
“When creating this work, I was thinking less about how photography constructs the idea of a family and more about the objects found throughout the domestic setting of a family home—in particular, the memories and histories associated with these items, and how they inform perception of our family,” Nugent-Palache says in the catalogue.
Wall says that the images in the exhibition reflect the different dynamics that exist within families.
“These relationships are deemed to be positive by society but can often be complicated or unknowable or changing and constrained,” Wall states.
Moreover, she adds that families can be comforting and tension-filled at the same time. “I think photography has become such an interesting tool for which artists are exploring things that are supposed to be really familiar and close to us but which are in many ways often unknowable.”
Another of the local artists, Anna Kasko, has family photos of a different sort in the exhibition. According to Wall, Kasko found an old box of slides and tried to find the owner so they could be returned. But the person didn’t want them, which struck Wall as very interesting because they documented a family history.
Kasko ended up editing these slides, transposing one image on top of another to create something entirely new.
“She presents this as light boxes,” Wall explains. “They’re actually quite small and glowing.”
Wall likens them to jewels, inviting the viewer to get close. To the curator, these images address the question of whether photography actually presents a truth.
“They were true,” Wall says. “But what happens when you lay them one over the other? And what new reality can you derive as a viewer by looking at this work and making your own meaning?”
In the Capture catalogue, Kasko says that she is creating a more universal experience by interfering with the original intent “to blur subject specificity”.
“I invite the audience to look at and through the image—literally and allegorically,” she says.
A third Vancouver-based artist, Birthe Piontek, pointed out in the catalogue that "the relationship between photography and truth is very complicated".
"Even if an impage tries to deliver fact as opposed to a fiction, it can only show one specific angle: that of the photographer," Piontek said. "Many other angles are left out, including everything that existed outside the frame when the image was taken. At best, a photograph can depict one version of truth."
The people and objects in her images were staged, she added, noting that this was done "to tell a story and express emotions that my family members and I felt while losing my mother to dementia".
Another artist, Meryl McMaster, said that her Ancestral project because with a search for family photographs. This was done with the goal of her learning more about her Indigenous heritage (nêhiyaw [Plains Cree] from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan and the the Siksika Nation in Alberta).
Those images did not have the level of detail that she had hoped to find, so then she began collecting paintings and photographic portraits of 19th-century Indigenous women and men across the United States.
She zeroed in on the works of photographers Edward S. Curtis and William Soule, as well as painter George Catlin, who were documenting Indigenous traditional life in the belief that this would soon disappear.
"Their ideas and misrepresentations were spread throughout the public," McMaster commented. "In fact, my ancestors were still very much alive, just not in the way that they were depicted in these images."
She ended up putting these images on the bodies of herself and her father, which were covered in white pant like a screen.
"This process of playing with light and projection on the body creates a surreal and ghost-like quality to the images, with aspects of the past and present subject visible."
Another artist, Toronto-based Anique Jordan, has one image in the show called Family Album, which gave the exhibition its name. She travelled back to her hometown of San Fernando, Trinidad, where her mother (like McMaster's ancestors) didn’t have access to a camera.
According to Wall, Jordan wanted to put herself in a situation along the lines of what her mother experienced growing up.
“She went to places that were culturally, socially, and economically significant within her family,” Wall says. “She photographed herself at those sites.”
Because photography is so accessible and relatable, Wall believes that this imposes a great responsibility on the festival to take great care in how images are presented to the public.
Family Album is being presented for free at the Pendulum Gallery, which is in the lobby of the HSBC Canada Building on West Georgia Street across from the Vancouver Art Gallery.
“I really feel like photography is a medium of our time,” Wall says. “It’s such a common language. It’s everywhere. Everyone in some way kind of connects to it.”