The Family Camera: Missing Chapters

Group Exhibition


The Family Camera invites viewers to think about the complexity of family photographs. Functioning not only as images, family photographs are also objects that are created, held, shared, moved, abandoned, or lost. They are personal; however, they are also part of a larger, shared cultural practice. Family photographs are seemingly universal, yet for some families they do not exist. They are usually snapshots, but they can also be any image that occupies a domestic space and is treated as part of a family archive. Family photographs are generally produced by mass reproduction technology, and yet each has a unique aesthetic dimension that deserves contemplation.

For Canadians, photographs in family collections are often linked to stories of migration, whether recent or in the distant past, over short or long distances, international or within Canada. Photographs play an important role in mediating these experiences. They are taken at departures and arrivals, they capture the everyday moments and milestones that are part of these journeys, and they circulate through global networks to maintain connections across distances. Family photographs may be lost or destroyed along the way, yet still linger in the imagination.

This exhibition looks at family photographs as a cultural practice through the lens of migration, and considers the social, political, and technological factors that have impacted how individuals experience and represent family. Cultural shifts, such as marriage equality and transnational adoptions, can transform notions of family, while the advent of instant cameras, smartphones, and social media influence how we represent family, and with whom we share our family photos. The Family Camera demonstrates how these images reflect and shape conceptions of self, family, community, and nation.

A central component of the exhibition explores how family photographs variably connect to mobility. Some were created to record or commemorate a journey by showing people on the move: before, during, or after their travels. Occasionally these photographs move when people cannot—whether sent through the mail, hand-delivered on another’s behalf, or shared through social media—they travel across distances to help strengthen familial bonds. The stories behind seemingly ordinary images can reveal complex emotions and experiences associated with mobility. Certain photographs capture newcomers as they settle into communities and others link back to distant memories of migration. They are also often circulated in the adoption process, thereby mediating introductions between prospective families and children. Even tourist images, such as those of people posing at iconic Niagara Falls, bring together ideas of family, mobility, and photography. Among their various uses, tourist images can serve as a way for families to claim a place in the nation.

The exhibition also includes a chronology of cameras made for personal use, from turn-of-the-century box cameras and early folding pocket models, to the OneStep Polaroid Land Camera, the Kodak Instamatic 100, and the Apple iPhone. As camera technology became cheaper, portable, and easier to use over the course of the twentieth century, families gradually began to regularly document their own lives. Camera and film advertisements helped shape the practice by identifying themes and visual conventions. Childhood, for example, was an important theme captured through photographing everyday moments—birthdays, holidays, and kids at play—following specific compositions that were learned, and adapted, by amateur photographers.

While snapshots are seemingly ubiquitous, sometimes state policy controls what kind of family photographs can be taken, thereby determining who gets recognized as a family and who does not. In lieu of personal photographs, family archives can include images by a wide spectrum of producers, such as the press and state. When incorporated into personal albums and collections, official photographs can be re-contextualized as family photographs. At the same time, family photographs can challenge the work of state archives by visualizing family life in ways that resist official narratives. This exhibition considers the impact of the state on the formation and visualization of family, through photographs and documents shaped by the Residential School system (1840s to 1996), twentieth-century immigration policy, and Canadian laws regarding marriage equality.

The Family Camera features over two hundred objects, mostly photographs and stories collected through The Family Camera Network, a public archive project that collects family photographs and their stories and preserves them for future generations. It also includes loans from private and public collections, and new works by artists Jeff Thomas, Deanna Bowen, and Dinh Q. Lê. An immersive installation by OCAD University’s Digital Futures program explores the living room as a primary domestic setting for displaying and sharing family photographs.

Also on view at the Royal Ontario Museum May 6–October 29 100 Queen’s Park 416 586 8000 Mon–Sun 10am–5:30pm