Chinese Family Photographs and American Collective Memory

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many Chinese families destroyed personal objects that could identify them to marauding Red Guards as class enemies. As Li Songtang, founder of the Songtangzhi Museum of salvaged architectural remnants in Beijing recently explained to The New York Times, “People were so afraid that the Red Guards would find antiques in their home, they would toss them in the river at night so no one would see.” (1/19/09). They burned their own books and smashed their own heirlooms. Among these casualties were family photographs. Photograph albums were dangerous possessions because of who and what they portrayed. Intimate relationships, treasured objects, milestones of achievement, mementos of travel, domestic spaces – all the kinds of images that in the U. S. are usually reasons to cherish family albums were at that time the reasons to obliterate them. Americans often say that if catastrophe strikes the first thing they will try to save is their collection of family photographs. For many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, to save the family’s photographs would have been to precipitate destruction.

Plenty of family photograph albums did survive, however, both in China and overseas. These albums have seldom been thought worthy of collection and study, but they are invaluable archives of social history and of personal and collective memory. I am hoping that collections of these albums will grow, here and in China, and that interest in these albums will also increase if people can feel comfortable sharing the family history behind the images. Some collections have begun. I myself made a small collection during the half-year I lived in Beijing in 2008. I have also visited the small collection at the International Center of Photography in New York City. There is room for much, much more scholarship in this exciting new endeavor.

However, it will be important to understand the subtleties of cross-cultural interpretation as this research goes forward. There could be no starker example than the Chinese experience to show that the meaning of domestic photography is dependent upon its context. But the general (some might say naïve) faith many Americans maintain in the therapeutic value of commemoration underestimates the trauma and elides the potential ongoing terror of the attempt to hold on to certain memories through photographs.

The visual field is not an innocent field; it is thoroughly imbued with relations of power. As Americans learn to trans-nationalize the history of photography by studying its global histories and practices, and as domestic images from elsewhere come to inhabit our imaginations, visual theorists will need to confront photography’s political agency in this expanded field as well. China’s experience with family photographs offers new paradigms for future work.

Laura Wexler is Professor of American Studies, Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and Co-chair of the Women Faculty Forum at Yale. She is the author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (2000), Pregnant Pictures (2000, with Sandra Matthews), and numerous essays on photography and American visual culture.