What are we looking at?

Family Photography: Why and how did we develop this ritual?

The birth of Kodak Brownies has led to the popularity of snapshot and domestic photography. These practices have become even more pervasive with the advent of digital and phone cameras. Recording an event has become part of the event itself. This ritual is especially prominent in family photography.

I am an artist who works with images. As I looked through my family photographs that were scanned and archived on my computer, I noticed that in these photographs, my family members, relatives and I were often posing and smiling. The photographs almost always display happy memories of a particular time.

Why do we pose and smile when we take family photographs? How did we develop the ritual of documenting our family lives that way? 

This is a photograph of me, my sister and my cousin, playing on the beach in 1990. We were immersed in sand play, digging a big hole which looked like we were going to make a well. Perhaps we were going to collect water from the ocean, using the buckets to fill up the hole. The photographer, who was my father, saw this moment, came over and asked us to smile for the photograph. 

Here are two other family images, both taken in 1988. The image on the left was taken during a Christmas and New Year celebration at my uncle’s (二伯) flat in Mei Foo. My cousin (堂妹), my younger sister and I were wearing big fake plastic earrings. My other cousin (堂弟) wore a pair of plastic heart-shaped sunglasses. All the children were seated in front of a Christmas tree in carefully directed postures. My sister was placed on the rocking chair. I was seated behind my sister, slightly towards the right. Others were seated next to me in a row. My youngest cousin who was wearing a red jumpsuit was placed in front of her elder brother, so that she could lean her back against him. I became suspicious while looking at this photograph. It made me question whether the children were intentionally being positioned and dressed that way, so as to perform for the camera and have a record of this celebratory occasion.

The image on the right was a celebration of my grandmother’s birthday. All the family members and relatives gathered together that day to have dinner with my grandmother. It was an annual ritual for my immediate and extended family. In this photograph, my cousins and I are seen playing with the mah-jong tiles before dinner was served. I suspect the photograph might have materialised only after several attempts. My cousin on the right looked impatient while gazing at the camera. My other cousin in yellow tried to make a funny face. The boy in the middle and I (extreme left) held our smiles while we looked askewed from the gaze of the camera. If there were a contact sheet for the images taken that day, what would the sequence of images look like? Could there be more than one photographer documenting this moment?

I have no recollection of these particular events. I cannot recall any pleasant or unpleasant experiences from my memory. What I can remember though is an impression of the photographic encounters from these family events. All the relatives would hold their own cameras to take photographs of us, each of them wanting their own pictures of their children and their cousins. There was no consensus, and there was no communication. It was chaotic. The experience was confusing and frustrating. However, despite the chaotic experience, the product from these photographic encounters only reveals smiley faces, signifying happiness at these moments. They only project happy feelings when we read them in the present.

Since the nineteenth century, Kodak has monopolised the snapshot photography market. The corporation shaped the conceptualisation and cultural habits surrounding photography by creating a culture of using photography as leisure. They used perfect images of happy families in advertisements and magazines to promote such usage. As mass publications gained popularity, these ideal images of happy families circulated and infiltrated our domestic practices. They taught us how to stage our own pictures and perform for our contemporary albums.

(L) Vintage Kodak Ad 1952 (R) Vintage Kodak Camera Ad 1950, sourced from https://envisioningtheamericandream.com/2013/08/01/do-you-dream-in-kodacolor-2/

When we look at these old family photographs, the images influence the stories we tell ourselves about our family life. Jo Spence and Patricia Holland noted that the pleasure we get from reading these family photographs leads us to believe that our lived family experiences match up to the longed-for ideal image of family life. For whom is this ideal image so carefully shaped? Family photographs are supposed to be private and not seen by the public. Yet, there is still a need to produce “correct” family pictures, where they project happy emotions into the future. Is it a way to ensure that as we reshape our memories while looking at these photographs, we will remember that our family relationships have been joyous and fulfilling? Could it be a way to secure the ideal image of family life we hold in our mind?

My mother explains: “The feeling of connection is important, as it will disappear in one way or another, as time goes by. The happy family images create hope for the future family life.” I am not sure whether I agree with her that images of happy families would offer hope for our family life in future. It is true that we all long for family cohesion and intimate connections. However, this type of family photographs sometimes creates an illusion of family connections. It obscures and devalues the crying, the unpleasant, and the ambivalent aspects of family life. Soon enough, I begin to question the authenticity of these “happy family” photographs and the family life behind them.

According to Richard Chalfen, we can regard family photographs not just as images but as “a process and a doing, an act of communication and a symbolic activity”. Elizabeth Edwards adds that family photographs can also be seen as relational objects. They create history and allow feelings to emerge, which otherwise would not have been articulated if these images do not exist. As I get older, I become sensitive to the power dynamics in the photographic encounter taking place in a family setting. As an aunt who would nowadays photograph my nephew during family gatherings, I am cautious of the reversal of roles. Is there a way to create family photographs in a more equal way?

Chalfen, R. (1987). Snapshot versions of life. Popular Press.

Edwards, E. (n.d.). Photographs as relational objects. Photography and Orality: Dialogues in Bamako, Dakar and Elsewhere. http://dakar-bamako-photo.eu/en/elizabeth-edwards.html

Kotchemidova, C. (2005). Why we say “cheese”: Producing the smile in snapshot photography. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(1), 2–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/0739318042000331853

Sandbye, M. (2014). Looking at the family photo album: A resumed theoretical discussion of why and how. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 6(1), 25419. https://doi.org/10.3402/jac.v6.25419

Spence, J., & Holland, P. (Eds.). (1991). Family snaps: The meanings of domestic photography. Virago Press.