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Torn Photographs and Shaping Personal Narratives

Since forever, my family has kept an archival collection of printed black and white photographs wrapped in newspapers. Primarily comprising imagery from my parents' nuptials, the birth of my siblings, their formative years, and extending into my infancy, this repository lacks the corresponding negatives, given that all photographs were captured by an acquaintance known as a 'friend photographer'. My recollection of this individual is faint, confined to a solitary instance when he captured a moment of my distress. Sometime between the ages of 4 and 6, I gaze innocently and very upset at the camera which brightens my face with a strong flash. The significance of this image persists in my consciousness, encapsulating sentiments of anger and anxiety that have accompanied me throughout my life. I still wonder to this day who that person was and why did he take that particular image, which among all the important life events, it seemed like a mundane, insignificant moment. But what exactly did he see that made him take the photograph? How did he manage to capture something so important for me, and so overseen by everyone else?

I think this is the sort of magic that family archive has. We look at these memories, some that we still hold onto and some that we have completely forgotten; moments before our existence; gazes that speak a lot more to us, haunt us and question our understanding of the past; these fragments of time, forever stunned, open to interpretation, meaning and symbolism. But what does it mean for the other viewers?

The images above are of my parents and my older sister as a baby. They appear as a happy, quite trendy family, with a beautiful child. Observers may endeavour to contextualise the imagery, drawing upon visual cues such as the backdrop and attire to approximate the temporal and spatial coordinates of the scene. Maybe the hanged carpet on the wall gives you an idea that it is somewhere in Eastern Europe. The patterned clothes and my father’s sideburns might take you to sometime in the 80s. They seem happy, together, almost magazine perfect.

However, my personal interpretation of these visual narratives greatly differ, finding myself unable to reconcile the depicted familial tableau with my lived reality. The photographs were taken about 11 years before I was born. I don’t know where they took these images as I don’t remember the carpet on the wall (maybe it just fell out of fashion by the 90s). The clothes are also a complete mystery: the happy patterns (my father even changes tops in between the shots) transformed into dull, old, completely unfashionable wardrobe by the time I grew up. I have seen my father dirty, in work clothes, coming home from construction work. My mother’s lush, mid length, blow dried hair became a short perm, making her look much older. 

Their happiness is completely strange to me, I have never seen my parent smiling like that, sharing an intimate moment. They seem happy, having had their first child, a happiness that will completely disappear from photos with their second and third daughter (myself). The more I look at the images, the more I am puzzled and I wonder, was this maybe a fake moment? Were they really happy or were they posing for the photographer? What happened to the patterned clothes, was this maybe the first sign they would progress steadily into an unhappy marriage?

I am sad that I didn’t meet my parents as they were in these photographs. And I know that these images hold a special power onto me: these moments before my existence, the testament that there was a time where my parents were different, a dream that I have never even dared of having. But they don’t have the same power over someone outside my family. The magic diminishes, and at best, it can become a curiosity. So, as an artist, how do I work with my family archive, and what do I want these photographs to evoke once the viewer gazes upon them?

I found myself drawn to the idea of fostering empathetic engagement through shared experiences. It became clear that the act of tearing apart a photograph held profound symbolic weight, transcending mere physical destruction to encapsulate broader themes found in segments of the past. It serves as a potent symbol of agency and separation, encapsulating sentiments of rupture and reconciliation within the broader tapestry of familial dynamics. This universal gesture, emblematic of decisive agency and the reclamation of personal narratives, can resonate with audiences on a visceral level, inviting contemplation of themes such as trauma, separation, and the malleability of memory. Through strategic interventions and interpretative gestures as a performance, I aim to open dialogues surrounding themes of memory, identity, alteration, rewriting history and the present.


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