Writing

  • Family photographs as constructed narratives and the notion of the ‘photographic hijacking’ - An attempt at understanding myself as the subject of family photographs

     

     

    This essay begins with my parents splitting up when I was eight years old. A traumatic experience to say the least, I have always felt as though my life after has been divided in two. The person I was then, part of this perfect ‘nuclear family’ with posed family photographs on the walls and the person I am now, split between two homes and two identities. I remember the pain and confusion the whole experience caused me and how I reacted strangely and incredibly emotionally to the whole ordeal. I was embarrassed about my situation and in turn did not want my friends to know that my mother had a new boyfriend and that my parents had split up. Thus ensued the decade long fight to completely seperate my family life and my personal social life. I still do not fully understand why I decided to do this, but for a very long time my parents did not know my friends and my friends did not know my parents and this way the only way that I was comfortable living my life, although emotionally I was in complete turmoil. Years later my father brought out a box of old photographs and videos that had been shot before the whole experience. We sat there watching them, my father and sister laughing and commenting on the old footage, but I could not help but feel incredibly uncomfortable, almost angry. I had this sinking feeling of unfairness - how was it fair to bring up this footage of the past I had worked so hard to move on from? By viewing this footage I was forced back in time against my will, to relive memories that I didn't even know I possessed. This footage anchored me down in a place I didn’t want to be in, it hijacked my memories and embedded itself as a memory somewhere in my subconscious. I did not recognise myself in the footage, I did not remember my movements, or my laughs, my tears. I did not remember the toy that I had in my hand that I apparently (according to my father) loved so much. These were memories I was told happened and due to the overwhelming photographic evidence, I blindly accepted them as true. Surely one of the absolute strangest experiences one can go through in regards to their past is being told “this is you”, when truly you have no recollection of it? I was accosted by images of my apparent self and forced to accept and create memories out of them.

    One of the first things I was taught as part of my degree in photography at university was to always question a photograph. Does or can a photograph truly depict reality or is it simply a distilled version of reality, a reality that the author of the photograph wants you to see? Surely there is a reason why my father has amassed a collection of photographs of me smiling, laughing, cuddling with my mother and splashing about in the bath - because these are memories that he wants to show, that he wants to remember. Is it ethical to force these ‘memories’ onto me, when they only depict one side of my life as a child? I don’t always remember being as happy as I am depicted in those photographs and that makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I clearly remember the feeling of sadness and grief every time I could hear my parents argue, I can remember the cold shivers up my spine every time I wondered whether my parents still loved each other - yet none of these photographs help me recall these memories because these were not memories that are meant to be public… because these are memories that break the spell of the illusive ‘nuclear family’. Who would want that in a world where photography is used by the masses to force feed lies and the illusion of happiness to others, especially now with the rise of social media.

     

    My mother, Grandmother and I - London, 1st of August, 1998

     

    My obsession with nostalgia and the obsessive tendencies that appear in my practice as an artist stem from the fact that I am trying to find a history to hold onto, or perhaps even memories - yet I am afraid of the ones that I am given. Hans Eijkelboom does exactly this in his 1973 series ‘My Family’, where he constructs memories of himself as a ‘father’ figure by approaching four different wives in their homes after their husbands have left for work. He manages to persuade them to create a family portrait with the children, the wife and himself as the father figure. Kirsten O'Regan - a writer for Hyperallegic magazine mentions that “Hans Eijkelboom similarly questions photography’s anodyne tendencies in “With My Family” (1973), where he subverts the concept of the saccharine family photo to great effect by inserting himself into his neighbors’ homes to pose with a series of wives and children not his own”. This work poses many questions about family identity and completely subverts the idea of memories in photographic form being evidential to a time and place. You can see the slight anxiety that these mothers have when posing with Eijkelboom because it truly is a huge invasion of the self, in the sense that especially in the 1970’s men were seen as the pillar of a family. The presence of a father in a photograph was of utmost importance and Eijkelboom essentially ousted the father to insert himself in this position of power. He not only forcibly created these memories but then asserted them as true through naming the series ‘My Family’. It becomes a hijacking of a memory and a statement of ‘truth’. It does not leave you any time to ponder, you are told this is his family and this is what you will believe. These families are now his - in memory. So is it possible that I feel as though my own memories are ‘photographically hijacked’? Perhaps it is this feeling of powerlessness towards my own past that render the photographs hard to see? Thus it really starts to become about power and control. Perhaps as I felt powerless as a child with my parents’ relationship, I feel this powerlessness emanating from these photographs - not only in the sense that I did not have control over the photographs but also the lack of power the images portray. The photographs become a symbol of a time where I had lost control and seeing them now from a place where I have regained control of my own life, emotions and thoughts, the photographs become hard to look at.

     

    Hans Eijkelboom - ‘My Family (1973)’, Photograph - Close up of mothers uncomfortable face

     

    Looking back at my own family photographs in relation to Eijkelboom I feel as though I feel a similar anxiety or uneasiness as the women in the ‘family portraits’. They are uneasy because of the falseness of the narrative that the photograph creates and because of the removal of their important ‘husband-father’ figure. We construct memories daily and the photograph plays a large role in these constructions nowadays, especially with social media. A photograph is a way of ensuring a moment in time will become part of the construction of a memory - of a certain time and place. These more contemporary constructions that stem from social media are more toxic and entrapping than ever, as it has become a career to essentially create narratives to sell a certain way of life or idea to people. Thousands of people make money off of Instagram and Facebook by selling ‘lives’ that people want to see. Amalia Ulman is a great example of an artist that created work as a comment on these new narratives. The BBC wrote an article on her, which was appropriately titled ‘The Instagram Artist that fooled Thousands’ that explains how she presented herself as an ‘Instagram Girl’ and essentially used hashtags to popularise her page of ‘appealing’ selfies to the masses. She posted them in a way so that she could create “an order that could make sense as a narrative”. This here is key, as she was creating a complete and utter fabrication that was believed by her thousands of followers. When she posted her final photograph on the 19th of September 2014, she had gained just over 85,000 followers - where she then revealed publicly that it had all just been a performance. This enraged many people that had seen her as an ‘inspiration’. This in itself is the most interesting to me as people were angry that they were ‘lied’ to, however they do not realise that most of these large pages are simply fabricated narratives as well, simply distilling the best of someone's life.

     

    Hans Eijkelboom - ‘My Family (1973)’, Photograph

     

    Trying to understand all of this from the perspective of my own family photographs and my inner struggle with them - it is important to make a clear distinction between a photograph in itself and the emotional connection that can be created through parts of an image. Levinas mentions the “face” in his writing, however never as a physical or aesthetic object, but rather just simply as a ‘human face’. The face in itself does not have a unity or a whole - it is much more complicated and perhaps this is why it is so difficult to accept photographs of myself at a younger age. Levinas explains that “The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me, the idea existing to my own measure. . . . It expresses itself”. Essentially my own face that I am seeing in these childhood photographs of myself create confusion because I have a hard time recognising them as my own, I thus in turn reject the ‘plastic’ physical nature of the photographs that are containing these memories. The emotion coming from these family photographs are a sort of false emotion that comes on with a sense of ‘forced nostalgia’. Philip Larkin touches on this feeling of nostalgia and longing in the second half of his beautiful poem ‘Reference’ whereby he exclaims that “From your unsatisfactory age / To my unsatisfactory prime. / Truly, though our element is time, / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives. / They link us to our losses: worse, / They show us what we have as it once was, / Blindingly undiminished, just as though / By acting differently, we could have kept it so”. Being able to keep and cherish a memory is definitely of utmost importance to me and it almost torments me. However I am starting to understand that to be able to want to look back at these memories I need to have had control over the situation in the photograph and the actual taking of the image. I always seem to yearn for a time that once was.

     

    In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in calm water - unable to realise it was simply a representation of himself. He lost the will to live as he was unable to leave his reflection and eventually died. Interestingly, we can ask ourselves what would have happened if Narcissus had a mirror to carry around or perhaps even a photograph of himself? This myth perfectly encapsulates the human instinct to try and see ourselves from other people’s perspectives. However as I do not recognise myself in my family photographs, this becomes an impossible task. I can not control how I was as a child or how I am portrayed in photographs. This power was handed over to my family that was photographing me at the time and perhaps this subconsciously creates a ‘battle’ within myself as I lose control over how I want to be recognised. Perhaps I am uncomfortable with an outdated ‘reflection’ of myself and I am only comfortable with my ‘new’ self that I have attained through growing up? If the admittance of knowledge is the loss of innocence - having questioned these photographs a few too many times and their validity, their intentions and their true nature I have become unable to view them as a symbol - innocent relics of a past time, a past memory. This is unlike most people and how they react to old photographs of themselves with such innocence and open arms. They have now become something that I tend to subconsciously try and fight back, to avoid and to leave behind as I create my own memories, my memories that I have the power over.

     

    The recognition of the self as a child can be an extremely estranging experience as they are transfixed with their own bodily ‘wholeness’ which gives an illusion of control and power, yet they soon learn to accept themselves as ‘Other’. This notion of the self that becomes overridden leads to a shattering in the previously held understanding of the child by becoming capable of making the clear distinction between itself from the ‘outside’, thus allowing the child to locate itself in the world . My inability to distinguish my ‘previous self’ in these photographs in relation to my ‘current self’ shatters the memories of myself as a child and creates a sense of disillusionment because I simply can not see my previous self as a part of the ‘world’, or more so a memory that is part of the ‘world’ - but part of the ‘Other’ instead. A lot of the time, especially when dealing with old family photographs I feel as though we need to have our self image ratified by an authority in two different ways. Firstly, I tend to seek an intermediary that confirms that it is me and then I am also looking for confirmation that the way I appear to myself is the way I appear to others - in a sense, ‘self-othering’, if we look at this from a Lacanian point of view. When I think of myself as an adult, I think of myself as ‘whole’ or ‘unified’ - “I think, therefore I am”, but this is something that just like everyone else, I have learned as I have grown up. What we think of as our own identity, is just simply a construct behind which the real subject resides . The first time the infant sees itself in the mirror, is the first time the infant develops a sense of the self. Before this, the child doesn’t think of himself as an individual, but more so as a unified subject - at one with everything else around it. This is a feeling I can clearly remember when I was younger. I remember feeling much more ‘connected’ to my surroundings and not really thinking of myself as a single unity. However as I grew older, I have clearly felt this disconnect to my surroundings and something deep inside of my subconscious clearly grounded me as my current self. This brings us to Sigmund Freud and his structural model of personality, in which he states the ‘id’ is the only component of personality that is present from birth . Driven by the pleasure principle, the id is important at birth because it helps to satisfy the infant’s innate and immediate needs such as food, water and sleep. As we grow older however, the ego comes into play as we start to deal with reality. This is where Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ theory comes into play, as I believe that the ego is born through the development of the sense of self - or for Lacan, when a child sees itself in the mirror for the first time. Perhaps these photographs are a strange, tangible connection between the id and the ego? They were all taken before I was truly conscious of myself, of the world around me, so looking back at them now as an adult with an ego and a clear sense of self, the lack of ego might make for an uncomfortable experience? Essentially the photographs are a physical manifestation of my internalised fight as an infant between the unconscious self - the subject and the ego and the formation of the self I think of as an ‘I’.

     

    I have always felt as though there was a clear and distinct border between who I was as an infant and who I am now. Perhaps this was more obvious to me because of my parents splitting up and suddenly having my ego come into play as a defence mechanism of sorts. This clear distinction however is fascinating from a photographic standpoint when looking at photographs of myself as an infant. I know how much the world around me - just like anyone else has shaped and moulded me into the person I am today. Lacan would argue that this has detached me from my ‘real self’ as I have grown up and formed an ego and I do feel this. Perhaps I won’t ever be comfortable viewing these images as they are representations of a simpler time for me. Yes, a time when my family was whole, but truly I do not think that this is what bothers me anymore. The issue at hand here is simply that these photographs represent my ‘true self’, a self that I can barely even recognise anymore because of all the outside factors that have made me into who I am today, as a twenty-year old man. Until I can accept that I won’t ever be as carefree and untouched ever again, these photographs will continue to torment me. Through their innocence and how they depict me in this infantile state, the photographs become reminders of the harsh reality of being conscious, of having responsibility, fears and people around me that depend on me. Perhaps when I become comfortable with my own ego, my own insecurities and fears I can learn to accept these photographs as simply just past memories - instead of reminders of a simpler time that I seem to long for.

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