photo detectives

A year or two after we moved into our house, I created a photo wall at its heart. These photos – all black and white or sepia-toned portraits of (mostly) unsmiling ancestors, now greet us as we walk up from the front door.

My Surinamese grandmother as a toddler, standing on a stool. I’m entranced by her chubby arms, her lacy white dress, and her ringlets. My Dutch grandmother, relaxing with her beau – my future grandfather – at a picnic with another couple. An anonymous Dutch ancestor at her first communion. My mother-in-law with her family, a stiff but jaunty bow on her head. My great grandfather standing tall and serious. My Faroese grandparents-in-law, in a teaching college class photo. A quintessentially Dutch photo featuring a random (but undoubtedly related to me) couple with a bike between them. All of them clustered together, tracing family lineages that criss cross the hemispheres.

I have more historical photos in digital albums. At Christmas a few years ago, I created a digital archive of all of my dad’s old family photos, an inheritance that travelled from Dongen, the Netherlands (where he was born) to our house in Alberta after my grandmother passed away. In February 2015, meanwhile, my aunt gave me a jump drive with another collection of photos, this time from my mother’s side of the family. And then there’s the online family tree project my cousin started.

All of these photos function as windows into stories of the past. Not just my stories, but stories of life in general. What did it mean to have one’s photo taken? To whom did one give photos? What kinds of events did photos mark? Who took the photos? And where were they taken?

One of my favourite photos is also one of the oldest in my collection: a picture of my grandmother as a baby, in the arms of an unknown woman, likely her mother (you can see that photo at the end of this post), Given that my grandmother was born in Suriname, along South America’s northern coast, why is my great grandmother holding her daughter in a stiff pose, wearing full formal early twentieth-century European dress while standing in front of an idyllic, if fanciful English-garden-esque backdrop? I start to sweat just looking at the photo. I can’t even begin to imagine how hot they must have been.

Thinking further to other photos on our wall: Who was the couple holding a bike on a cobbled street? Whose bike was it? Which street was it? What can their clothes tell me? Who was that dour family gathered around a table? Where were my grandparents picnicking? What did they eat? What was she wearing?

What can these photos tell me about life in the early twentieth century? How do all of these stories intersect with mine? And what happens when these varied lives come together onto a single wall?

Lots and lots of questions.

A few years ago, students at the University of Michigan embarked on a photo mission of their own. Starting with two nineteenth-century photo albums of an African-American family and then looking at city directories, newspapers and census returns, they developed a social history of everyday African-American life in the late nineteenth century. In the process, they also learned about the history of photography.

You can see the results of their work – and their still unanswered questions – on the project website.

In the early 2000s, Kagan Goh embarked on a different photo dectective project. Armed with a framed photograph of a samurai warrior and a photo album dated 1939, both of which his brother had purchased at a garage sale from a man who had found them in his attic, he decided to find the family to whom these portraits belonged. In Goh’s words:

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1942, Japanese Canadians were ordered to turn over property and belongings to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property as a “protective measure only.”  Caught in the whirlwind of anti-Japanese hysteria and paranoia, all of the Japanese descendents living in Canada at the time were rounded from their homes and herded off to internment camps and declared “enemy aliens.”  They had no choice but to leave everything behind.  The album was left behind when the family was interned and their possessions were either seized by the Canadian government and sold for a pittance, or stolen by looters.  They lost everything.

I remember reading about the story in a Vancouver newspaper. Goh, together with a colleague, contacted the papers and Japanese community organizations in their search. Ultimately, after a few years of searching, they succeeded, and the album and photo went ‘home’ to their original owner, Kay Kamitakahara. Since then, Goh has made a film about this story. Entitled “Stolen Memories,” its premise is simple: “If you had to walk out of your present life in 48 hours, possibly never to return, what would you take with you? What would you leave behind?”

It’s a haunting question.



(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.

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