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A New TV Show Looks at Family Albums Across the USA

The PBS series Family Pictures USA suggests that “sharing photographs reminds us of our common roots and strengthens connections with our friends, families and neighbors.”

Host Thomas Allen Harris visits the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation at their tribal grounds in North Carolina to share stories from their family photo album (Courtesy of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion LLC)

“For the past 150 years, families have used the photo album to pass on their stories from one generation to the next. The family album has kept us together,” photographer and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris told me. Harris was commenting on his new PBS television series, Family Pictures USA. The three-part series — filmed on location in Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida — focuses on family albums in the United States. Harris and his production team carry out photo-sharing events in various locations, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts; he suggests that “sharing photographs reminds us of our common roots and strengthens connections with our friends, families and neighbors.”  

This notion of philos, or the fondness shared between friends, family, and neighbors, permeates Harris’s earlier work, for instance, the documentary feature film he directed, VINTAGE – Families of Value (1995). In VINTAGE, which Harris has called “participatory filmmaking,” the sharing of Super 8 cameras among siblings speaks to the correlation between intimacy, the gender-specific cinematic gaze, and storytelling. While not at the center of Harris’s new television series, the notion of philos is palpable in the form of touching old dog-eared portraits of long-deceased relatives. The television series also depicts philos through ties that bind friends and families, as well as those in professional environments and other kinds of social and communal groups. Such is the friendship between the family of the late Reverend C. L. Franklin and the family of the late Joe Van Battle, founder of Joe’s Record Shop in Detroit. Family Pictures USA can also resemble a visit to an archive, as Harris urges cast members to wear white gloves, and classifies family photographs as artifacts. 

Host Thomas Allen Harris with North Carolina poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green, and her cousin Sterling Michael Holt (Courtesy of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion LLC)

While sharing photographs, cast members recall historical events, such as the Great Migration, in which six million Black Americans relocated from the rural South to urban centers in the North and West between 1916 and 1970. In this way, a kind of Americanism underlies Family Pictures USA, and it is indeed embedded in sentimental responses to family photographs of ancestors. According to the French historian Ernest Renan, the cult of ancestors is at the very core of a nation. In the United States, the White, male founding fathers have shaped perceptions of America’s foundation as British and Western European. The new Americanism presented in Family Pictures USA challenges this ancestral history. In one episode, a family that owned a plantation in early 20th century Durham, North Carolina, comes together to review their family pictures. The meeting reveals that the family’s ancestors include the descendants of both sharecroppers and plantation owners.

The photo-sharing and storytelling support the composite nation imagined by Frederick Douglass during the 19th century, when he took part in public debates on the 14th and 15th amendments, which granted Black men the right to vote. Douglass aimed to transform the idea of the nation as a rebuttal to illiberal White nationalism. As Thomas Allen Harris refracts Frederick Douglass’s ideas in the premise of the American family album, he asks, who is pictured and included in the American family album? The answer is resounding in its scope: American Indians, Black Americans, Chinese, Korean, Puerto Rican, and Mexican Americans, among many other ethnicities. The series argues that a shared history emerges between people of different backgrounds through photography and the format of the American family album. The series will appeal to both a general audience and art aficionados familiar with experimental filmmakers Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah, who have each taken a critical position in the genre of  portraiture, and used it to transform film, cinema, and visual art.

Family Pictures USA isn’t Harris’s first engagement with the ideas of Frederick Douglass. In the documentary feature film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014), Harris makes the case for his own family album as a vehicle for family and national history. A photograph of Douglass appears in his family album, selected and inserted by Harris’s grandfather. That Douglass was one of the most photographed authors of the 19th century comes as no surprise given the importance Harris places on the power of photographs in transforming family and collective histories.

Family Pictures USA is airing on PBS stations.

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