This special issue is not about family photographs produced in Asian spaces, but about how Asian spaces produce forms of visuality that enhance our understanding of family photographs. The essays span the temporal range of photo practice, from the nineteenth century to the present. And they span photographic types — snapshot, studio portrait, album, fine-art work, and photo advertisement — sometimes blurring the boundaries among them. They also have a geographic span, from Istanbul to Japan, with stops in Palestine, India, Nepal, and Vietnam and some of their diaspora. The authors grapple admirably with the scholarly literature, so I will forgo a recap. Instead, I will highlight a few themes that run through the essays. Together they form a significant contribution to the study of family photography, and of photo history more broadly.

Personal /Archive

Recently, there has been increased interest in family photography. It can even be considered part of a vernacular turn in the study of the history of photography. Many studies of the genre have started from a personal entry point or examine images directly connected to the author’s own family. Such an approach may be disparaged in some disciplinary contexts and lauded in others, but some of the essays in this issue demonstrate that there is a productive potential, even a necessity, for such a perspective. Indeed, the subject of the archive is a central one in the study of family photographs. This is partly because of the lack of adequate institutional archives of family photographs and partly due to the lack of corresponding data when they do exist.

Regional archives and now a number of museum collections are preserving genealogical data of known photographs when possible. Orphaned photographs are collected because of their connection to a place or a time period and valued for their formal qualities or illustrative uses. In contrast, one’s personal photographs contain a robustness of data. A few initiatives are now preserving this kind of information so that it can be more widely accessible to scholars, and my own thinking has been shaped by my work with The Family Camera Network project. In all cases, the essays show that the personal provides an important source of critical inquiry and is an essential node in the study of family photographs, one that opens a productive space for knowledge generation and may be the only way to fill out our still, one could argue, meager understanding of the history of photography.

An Expansive Definition

A family photograph is usually considered an image of family and takes the form of a snapshot — that is, a picture taken by an amateur photographer with a portable, point-and-click camera. But it can also be made in a studio by a commercial photographer and kept within the domestic space of the home. Some family photographs move several times, from private to public archives, from one continent to another, from treasures to orphan images and back again, depending on their flow as generations pass away, homes are cleaned out, or circumstances that force abandonment or loss reconfigure them and their meanings. It could be argued that a photograph produced for an official purpose in a state archive doesn’t constitute family photography. But the very same image occupying a domestic space would be considered a family photograph.

The essays in this issue do not debate what a family photograph is: Instead, each discusses the varied nature of family photography. In this way, the essays suggest a shift away from limiting or policing the boundaries of family photography toward understanding that it is a category in flux, contingent on changing notions of photography and of family. In one essay, for example, a whole village is related and thus family. In another, the family photograph is not a photographic image at all.

I suggest that rather than assert a definition of the genre from the outside, it is more interesting to witness the ways in which the term is applied and to track how it is used and evolves. To consider how an image was made and what it looks like alongside how it is used and what meanings it acquires enables us to attain a deeper understanding of the cultural practice of family photography.

A Question of Methodology

All the essays in this issue provide methodological case studies. Some offer ways to approach family photographs in a personal collection or a state archive. One tracks advertisements across a span of time to recognize patterns in how cultural practice is shaped. Another reads the material clues on and around orphaned images to decode histories that have been erased by changing state regimes. And several use contemporary art as a way to view family photography: Contemporary art can be a method in itself, to give access to a cultural practice that is absent, not preserved, or has been erased from the archival record. In this way, the artwork becomes the archive, standing in for a loss that is irrecoverable and ensuring that absence does not mean erasure.

Deepali Dewan is the Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art and Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto and an affiliated faculty member at the University of Toronto. Her interest in the history of photography in India focuses on how photographs reflect and shape South Asian and diasporic visuality, vernacular practices, the production of disciplinary knowledge, and the nature of archives.