/ Transnational Family Photographs and Adoption from Asia

In a personal photograph of the Somerset family, a group of adults and children snuggle together shoulder-to-shoulder on the family couch (Figure 1). Alan and Felicity sit in the middle, with their youngest son to their left, his arms crossed a bit uncomfortably but smiling. To their right, the other four children are squished together in what appears to be a happy pile. A young man and woman have their heads popping out from behind the two youngest daughters, sitting on their laps with toothy smiles. Four pairs of arms and legs are entangled with a sense of ease that demonstrates the intimacy and comfort of their kinship. However, one thing that makes this family photograph unique is the visibility of race within this image. Everyone appears to be white except the two youngest daughters who are Asian. Nevertheless, looking at the image itself, this seems to have no impact on the comfort and intimacy displayed. All of the children look at home, literally and emotionally embraced by their family members.

Alt-text: Five white people sit side by side on a couch smiling. Two Asian girls, also smiling, sit on the laps of two of them.Figure 1: Alan Somerset, The Somerset family at home, London, Ontario, Canada, gift of Felicity and Alan Somerset, 1985, dye coupler print, © Royal Ontario Museum, courtesy of The Family Camera Network.

As the image suggests and the archive confirms, the racial difference within this family is explained by transnational adoption. Alan and Felicity adopted their daughters from Korea to Canada in the 1980s, roughly eight years after their youngest son was born. This family photograph of them captures the simultaneity of this unique family formation story combined with their normative displays of kinship. And it invites us to ask, what does it mean to be able to “see” transnational adoption from Asia through family photography? How do these photographs visually demonstrate the convergence of race and transnationalism with the love and intimacy of family?

The Somerset family is part of a diaspora of transnational adoption from Asia that spans multiple countries from the second-half of the twentieth century into the present.[1] Embodying a mobility and deterritorialization of national boundaries that constitutes what Inderpal Grewal describes as “transnational connectivities,” adoption from Asia to Canada and the United States exemplifies a process defined by border-crossing and the transformation of the adopted child from Asian to Asian North American.[2] This article considers family photography in this context to further understand the ways in which the “trans-” in transnational, as a signifier of a particular kind of physical and ideological mobility, has shaped the photographic experience and kinship practices of Asian adoptees and their families.

I argue that family photography demonstrates and reifies the role of visuality in the process of constructing adoptive kinship as transnational. In this context, it not only participates in the very meaning-making emerging from the embodied experiences of transnational adoption, but visuality and photography also take on a transnational quality itself. Transnational family photography, as I describe it, is thus both a representation of the family and also a framework to examine how photography can be transnational in material and ideological ways. In other words, while individuals, their subjectivities, and their relationships to one another are transformed through movement across national and racial borders, family photographs can also be made transnational through their literal movements. For example, photographs can be taken in one country and then printed, distributed, or kept in another—a process of exchange and migration that has accelerated in the digital era.

The imbrication of racial difference within the majority of transnational adoptive families (and therefore also the photographs representing them) also further invites us to consider visuality alongside photography’s role in articulating the meanings of race and nation on a global scale. In this context, the relationship between Canada and the United States as “receiving” countries for adoption and Asian countries like Korea, China, and India as “sending” countries produces and normalizes a specific organization of racial difference. While the national circumstances may vary significantly from country to country, the majority of adoptive parents are white, and their children are racialized as Asian. For example, although Canada does not have the same militarized history of occupation with South Korea as the United States (that directly impacted the availability of Korean children for transnational adoption), Canadians are part of the broader normalization of white parents adopting Asian children.[3] This is not to say that all adoptive parents are white but rather emphasizes the entangled connection between racial difference and transnational adoption.

As a site of analysis, family photography is both intensely specific to the family it represents and yet culturally ubiquitous in the contemporary moment. As such, the examples analyzed here are by no means exhaustive or even representative of the practices of all transnationally adoptive families. Rather, they demonstrate the ways in which photography can give meaning to the transnational and vice versa within adoptive families. Archives like the Family Camera Network, from which the Somerset and subsequent Sinha/Brendemühl archival photographs are housed, offer new meditations on “the relationship between photography and the idea of family.”[4]

Beginning with the genre embodied by the Somerset photograph, I examine the visual trope of the group photograph as it depicts a unified image of the transnationally adoptive family. I explore how the visibility of the family in its togetherness brings the visuality of kinship so often expected from family photography into juxtaposition with the contrasting visuality of race. Then, I explore the visual trope of the transnational journey as it is actualized through photography. I show how this journey constitutes more than simply the physical act of adoption as the beginning of kinship and rather how it is an ongoing process of meaning-making through transnational photographic practice. In other words, the transnational qualities of adoption and the photography depicting it extend beyond any single act of family formation to inform how individuals experience the meaning of kinship over time. Considered together, the cultural representations and personal photographs here offer a lens for examining the entangled relationship between transnational adoption from Asia, the visuality of the transnational, and the potential for photography to actualize new modes of kinship.

Visualizing the Family Together

The family group photograph is a genre of family photography that feels so intimate and familiar that even without knowing the individuals in a photograph, it is often already easily recognizable. In Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, Patricia Holland posits,

At a time when the family group – at least in the overdeveloped West – is fragmented and atomized, images continue to be produced which reassure us of its solidity and cohesion. The compulsive smiles in the snapshots of today insist on the exclusive claim of the family group to provide satisfying and enduring relationships, just as the calm dignity of earlier pictures emphasised the formality of family ties.[5]

Since Holland’s writing in 1991, the “West” has become further “overdeveloped” with the proliferation of digital photography, and the compulsive smiles in snapshots thirty years later continue to demonstrate the aspirations to represent and claim family. Indeed, while the kinship of the family represented in the photograph is often real and embodied, family photographs operate in aspirational, curated, and ideological ways. Regardless of everything happening outside the frame, the family group conveys an investment in the representation of kinship as the bond of “satisfying and enduring relationships.”

Within the mixed race transnationally adoptive family, the family group photograph is both utterly familiar and at the same time striking. Like the Somerset photograph, kinship is immediately recognizable in the evident intimacy and domesticity of the scene: parents and children all positioned close together in a shared snapshot of unity and togetherness. Displaying a kind of “visuality of intimacy,” the Somersets look like a family. And yet, this visibility also lays the adoptive family bare in its demonstration of racialized physical difference. As Matthew Guterl writes of the mixed race group ensemble, “Seeing a single body in an array of dissimilar physiques, the eye constructs a system of differences and opposites, similarities and equivalences. In short, the look requires the invention, or assemblage, of an array as a tangible thing, or as an expression of a diversity of naturalized distinctions.”[6] Within the family group photograph, this difference operates as a type of visual metonym for adoption: the viewer need only look at the photograph to see that the child is adopted.

This relationship of looking (at the photograph) and seeing (adoption) contributes to the significance of photography in narrating the experience of adoption. One of the most well-known public narratives on transnational adoption is Deann Borshay Liem’s autobiographical film First Person Plural, released in 2000, which explores her experience as a Korean American adoptee.[7] The film reflects on Borshay Liem’s assimilation growing up in her white American family in the 1970s (in the period shortly before the Somersets also adopted from Korea) and her exploration of her personal history in finding and meeting her birth family in Korea as an adult. As the singular Asian child in her white all-American family, she realizes after becoming an adult that she must reckon with her past in Korea even as it elicits strong emotions for herself and her adoptive parents. The film has become an important cultural text in the study of transnational adoption precisely because it captures the complex and often fraught tension of race, trauma, kinship, and love inherent to the practice.[8] And yet, the centrality of photography and visuality within the film has not been a primary focus of scholars.

Part of what allows the film to convey the emotional nuances and layered tensions of transnational adoption is precisely Borshay Liem’s integration of present-day footage of herself, her parents, and her siblings with old home videos and photographs, available in part thanks to her parents who were avid home-videographers. Like the lasting bonds of kinship themselves spanning decades, First Person Plural reckons with the passage of time and how events of years past shape reflections of the present. As the viewer, we are witness to the continuous love her siblings and parents have towards her both verbally, in the way they describe her presence within the family, and visually, through the home footage and photographs of Borshay Liem as a child clinging to her sister in the pool or wearing pastel separates laughing as her mother rubs her face affectionately.

At the same time, in ways that her family members are sometimes painfully unaware and participatory, we also see how the process of adoption racialized and commodified Borshay Liem as a child. For example, after showing home footage of Borshay Liem as an eight-year-old child in a red coat coming down the airplane walkway for the first time to meet her adoptive family amidst other Korean children and white social workers, older sister Denise remembers in the present, “I think mother went up to the wrong person...” Then laughing she adds, “I think we didn’t know until we checked your nametag, or someone told us who you were! It didn’t matter. I mean, one of them was ours!” As the film goes on, this tension between Borshay Liem’s burgeoning belonging within her own family and what it means to be racially othered from them (due to her adoption) continues to make itself visible through these images of family even before it is realized in her own consciousness.

In one photograph in the film, the three siblings sit together in a row smiling as young adults (Figure 2). Borshay Liem and her sister sit on either side of their brother with the same hairstyle, falling just above the shoulder and gently permed with coiffed bangs parted in the middle. Borshay Liem’s brother has his arm draped around her shoulder, both her hands gently clasped around his with a sense of familiar ease. A celebratory cake sits in front of them on a table. They look like siblings, smiling and comfortable, crowded into their parents’ kitchen. Except we can see just by looking what Borshay Liem wants us to see: Deann looks undeniably different. She is Asian while her brother and sister are white.

Alt-text: An Asian woman, a white man, and a white woman sit together smiling at a kitchen table with a cake on it.Figure 2: Deann with siblings Duncan and Denise, featured in First Person Plural, 2000, © Deann Borshay Liem, reprinted with permission from the Borshay family.

The photograph of Deann and her siblings captures the same sense of kinship and comfort combined with the stark visibility of racial difference that we see in the Somerset family photograph. In the public context of the film, it is used to highlight these coexisting qualities. Part of her psychic journey is reconciling this seemingly idyllic upbringing with her own experience of loss, racialization, and difference. As Catherine Choy observes of the broader historical tensions this type of photograph represents,

The acceptance of Deann into the all-American Borshay family is on one important level a radical and progressive departure from the vehement anti-Asian sentiment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet First Person Plural also illuminates how the specter of anti-Asian racism haunts Deann’s integration into her new American family and community.... Her attempt to “fit in” is about becoming emotionally part of the Borshay family, but it is also about assimilating to the prevailing standards of white American physical beauty.[9]

These standards of beauty include the way she dresses and how she styles her hair, two aspects that are visibly mirrored with her sister in the photograph with her siblings. And as Choy points out, the stakes of this congruence of style and aspiration to beauty lie in the very belonging within her own family.

Photographs like this one, of which there are many in the film, demonstrate the ways in which the group photograph also does a certain type of declarative work within the adoptive family by situating the child that is a different race than the rest of the family within the frame. Here, the contrast of racial difference so frequent in transnational adoption also throws into relief how the family photograph is often less a representation of phenotypical physical resemblance and more so a presentation of the visuality of intimacy that signifies kinship. I would suggest that even within family photographs of normative biologically-related families, physical resemblance is often quite subtle. In other words, even for individuals that do share physical resemblance, that resemblance is rarely what indicates kinship within a photograph. Rather, what announces itself much more forcefully in the visual field is the manifestation of intimacy through posing, physical closeness, body language, and/or expression (what Holland referred to above as “the compulsive smiles”).

While the individuals in any given photograph indeed have their own experiences and relationships with one another outside of the photographic frame, their image as a family demonstrates the convergence of the visuality of kinship and the visuality of race within transnational adoptive family photography. I specifically use the term visuality here as it is defined by Stuart Hall and Jessica Evans to describe “the visual register in which the image and visual meaning operate.”[10] This visuality connects the signified and the sign, the image with what it represents. In this context, while both kinship and race operate and are felt through embodied experience, the way each is made visible and meaningful within the photograph contrasts against the other. The racial difference between the adopted child (or children) and the rest of the family is juxtaposed against the visible representations of what Holland called “solidity and cohesion.” And it is precisely this collision and collusion of the visuality of race with the intimate comfort of posing for a picture with family that characterizes transnational adoption’s relationship to photography.

In contemporary colorblind culture, we are taught not to “see” race through what David Eng calls the “racialization of intimacy,” that “marks the collective ways by which race becomes occluded within the private domain of private family and kinship today.”[11] This is further amplified within the adoptive family, wherein there is explicit investment to ensure the child’s belonging. Judith Modell writes in reference to adoption, “A made relationship, American law claims, can be exactly like a natural relationship: the child is as-if-begotten, the parent as-if-genealogical. The adopted child is granted an entirely new birth certificate, with the names of his or her adoptive parents on the document and the name of the birthparent nowhere in sight.”[12] This legal logic, which also applies to Canadian and many European adoption laws, further extends to cultural narratives of adoption both domestic and transnational whereby adoptive parents are always already using biological kinship as a reference point for which adoptive kinship is reassured to be equal.[13] While the intention behind this affirmation often comes from genuine love, affection, and care, this logic thus also associates the racial difference of the child with their distinct origins (of a family, history, and nation of birth), origins that must be negated in order for adoption to occur. And, as Kim Park Nelson writes, the broader societal “tendency to conflate culture and race” further illuminates the “privileging of cultural sameness over racial difference in adoptive families.”[14] It makes sense then that racial difference comes to signify the difference in origin that must be repudiated in order to affirm the “sameness” of the adoptive bond (as biological relatedness).

Indeed, in looking at the photograph of the mixed race transnationally adoptive family, colorblind logic demands, “Why does race even matter?” or “I don’t see race.” But such statements undercut themselves insofar as one must always already see racial difference in order to deny its significance. The adopted Asian child nestled within her white family serves as what Barthes calls the “punctum” or that “which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” in the idyllic family photograph.[15] The visibility of the transnational adoptee operates as the visual signal or “prick” to the viewer. Instead of denying that “prick,” and thus positioning the visuality of race and the visuality of intimacy in a dialectic whereby one must be denied in order to “see” the other, we must ask, are there ways to understand the visibility of racial difference in the family photograph that simultaneously attend to the genuine love and intimacy of adoptive kinship?

It is within this tension, between the affirmation of kinship and the recognition of racial difference in adoption, that a transnational approach offers reconciliation in undoing what Kit Myers describes as the symbolic “violence of love.” Rather than, as Myers describes, “reproducing ‘real’ (legible adoptive) families and precluding the importance of past and future identities of adoptees, acknowledgment of birth parents, and complex (non-heteronormative family structures),” transnationality offers the adoptee’s complex origins as part of an ongoing narrative of family and kinship formation.[16] Perhaps, then, the seeing of racial difference in the family group photograph can be read as an invitation to take into account this complex history of not only the loss, migration, and racialization inherent to adoption from Asia but also the specific national contexts in which children are made available in countries like Korea, China, and India.

In the example of the Somerset family, the two adopted daughters’ visibility as Asian Canadian offers an opportunity to engage with the fraught history of United States occupation and imperialism in Korea, the conditions upon which Korean children were made available to be adopted to North America and Europe more broadly, and the role of race in the continued practice of transnational adoption.[17] While this is certainly no simple task for adoptive families, and especially for white adoptive parents who are implicated in the systems of global power that have benefitted them, the emergence of communities of adult Korean adoptees engaging with these issues suggests that this is part of what it means to be of this diaspora.[18]

In First Person Plural, Borshay Liem’s reckoning comes partially in the form of bringing her white adoptive parents and Korean birth family physically together to meet in Korea, to negotiate what David Eng describes as the predicament of “the dearth of space in Borshay Liem’s psyche for two mothers.”[19] At one point amidst the emotional intensity of the meeting, photography serves as a transitional object for reconciling these two families who share very little except for a kinship with Borshay Liem. Borshay Liem’s adoptive mother Alveen presents her birth mother Chun Kil Soon with a thick photo album as a gift. On the cover is a studio portrait of Borshay Liem as a child smiling and posed in a sailor outfit with a parasol (itself a somewhat Orientalizing prop). As the Korean family members open the album, her father Arnold says off-screen in English, “The first picture is the first night she was with us.” They continue to look through the album briefly as Arnold narrates some of the photographs, his English translated into Korean by an interpreter. Chun Kil Soon looks up with a rare smile and thanks them in Korean. She walks to Alveen and grasps her hand as her words of gratitude are verbally translated. It is one of the few moments where both mothers are seen together in the same frame, sharing not only a psychic space for Borshay Liem but also a visual one.

Both the Somerset photograph and First Person Plural offer photography and visuality to viewers as a way of reconciling the seemingly but not necessarily conflicting forms of transnational kinship within adoption from Asia. While the transnational adoptive family group photograph captures the unique visibility of family love and racial difference, it need not shore up the family bond at the cost of denying the adoptee’s history of loss or racialization. Rather, these photographs invite us to think more expansively about the structures of power that make adoptive kinship possible and the ways in which crossing borders in transnational ways have shaped the meaning and experience of that kinship.

Transnational Family, Transnational Photography

In addition to theorizing the family as a photographable unit, this article considers the movement inherent to transnational adoption to reveal new forms of transnationality that are shaped by the specific qualities of photographic practice. The 1990s marked a turning point in transnational adoption from Asia, in which adoption from Korea began to decline as adoption from China and India increased. Unlike adoption from Korea in the second half of the twentieth century where children were brought to North America by social workers to meet their adoptive families (such as for Boshay Liem and the Somerset family), many adoptive parents in the late 1990s and 2000s traveled across national borders to meet and retrieve their adopted children.[20] Thus, in contrast to Borshay Liem’s family, where Korea was a place that only she had been and with which her adoptive family had no experience, many adoptive parents since the 1990s have been to the country of their child’s birth at least once. This mobility, combined with a contemporary culture that makes both international travel and family formation common photographic events, further situates adoption from Asia as a journey of multiple people and photographs.

Photographs taken on transnational journeys layer the mobility of people with that of photographs as both traverse national borders. In adoption from Asia, photographs originating from the child’s birth country participate in the production of adoption as an ongoing transnational journey. Adoption scholar Sara Dorow describes how activities of Chinese adoptees and their families “might more commonly be seen as transnational rather than diasporic.”[21] This distinction highlights how activities like traveling to China (both the original trip to adopt and subsequent return trips) engage with the meaning of mobility and its relationship to the different places of “home” and “origin” for Asian adoptees.

Taken in one nation and printed or circulated in another, photographs not only represent the transnational, they also give it meaning and make it material through photography’s claims on what is real across nations. This quality, which Barthes describes as the photograph “professing to be a mechanical analog of reality,” participates in the ideological creation of an “over there” of transnational adoption in both cultural narratives and personal memory: there exists a birth country and history from which a child originates and must journey from in order to belong in her adoptive family, and to which there is also opportunity for return.[22] In one example, a children’s book written by Dorow titled When You Were Born in China uses photographs in lieu of illustrations to show children adopted from China more about the country in which they were born.[23] Published in 1997 when adoption from China was rapidly increasing, the book is composed of over one hundred black and white photographs arranged around short descriptions. It explains to the reader that, while they may know from their parents that they were adopted, “What you might not know is what happened before all that. You might wonder where you lived, what those places were like, and who took care of you.”[24]

The first part of the book narrates everyday life in China using documentary-style photographs. Descriptions of China as “not a rich country” but “not a poor country, either” are accompanied by images of village houses made of mud and brick, tightly-situated concrete apartment buildings, rows of bicycles, and a man at an outdoor food stall eating a plate of noodles.[25] When You Were Born in China also describes the one-child policy that gave rise to the availability of adoptable Chinese children during this period, and how, “People like your birthparents knew this was an important rule, but it was a difficult rule as well.”[26] This text is surrounded by photographs of streets crowded with cars and bicycles, and seemingly random images of Chinese children with parents and family members. This narrative of learning “where you come from” relies on the successful mobility of the adoptee from this country (now unknown, thus providing the purpose for reading the book in the first place) to another. And, taking a similar transnational pathway as the adoptee herself, the photographs bring a visibility to life in China, at least one representation of it, across national and continental borders to North America where the book was sold.

As the book transitions to discuss Chinese orphanages, the photographs show Chinese babies and toddlers being cared for by orphanage nurses and foster families. In the final pages, white adoptive parents enter the photographic frames, smiling and holding the very children that have become theirs. Some of the photographs show the family formation process itself: signing papers and posing for a group photograph with other families. Others, importantly, show the (sometimes awkward) physicality of white adoptive parents existing in the space of China with their newly adopted children. One photograph shows a white couple with a baby on their lap, squished together in a bicycle rickshaw peddled by a Chinese man. Another shows an elderly Chinese woman in an outdoor park doing tai chi with her arm outstretched. A white dad with a bushy beard and glasses awkwardly mimics her pose, with his baby held in his hand stretched along his forearm. Chinese passersby look on laughing and smiling.

Alt-text: A black and white photograph of a Chinese woman doing tai chi in a park and a bearded white man holding a Chinese baby in his left arm, mimicking her pose. Chinese people stand around them looking amused.Figure 3: Stephen Wunrow, Early morning tai chi near West Lake, Hangzhou, China, from When You Were Born in China, 1997, © Stephen Wunrow, courtesy of Stephen Wunrow.

These photographs do not only offer happy memories with which readers can relate to their own family stories; they also provide a psychic convergence by which white parents can be imagined within the spaces of China, on a shared journey of what makes this adoption transnational. As Dorow elaborates in a more recent separate scholarly analysis, drawing on performance theory, “though Chinese adoption objects always constitute an ‘archive,’ they vary in the mode or degree to which they constitute a ‘repertoire’ of performed, embodied, and transformative meaning making.”[27] For both personal family photographs and the public photographs in When You Were Born in China, images of adoptive families forming in China offers a mode of visual embodiment that performs and substantiates the transnational qualities of their kinship.

In another example from The Family Camera Network archive, that demonstrates this journey produced and reproduced within the family album, a photograph appears at first glance to be an ordinary image of mother and daughter (Figure 3). Jutta Brendemühl stands holding her daughter Leena who was adopted from India in 2009. The portrait orientation shows the length of Jutta, standing in a shadowy wrought-iron entry way in front of a closed door with a small padlock. Behind her in the courtyard is a black bicycle resting against a grey concrete wall with red trim. Jutta wears a brightly patterned shirt and a purple skirt, with her blond hair tied back. Held snuggly in her arms, Leena is a toddler barely the length of her mother’s torso and wearing a bright yellow shirt. Their faces are level, and both are turned to the camera: Jutta makes eye contact and is smiling, while Leena has a curious but neutral expression.

The photograph was taken at the orphanage in Kolkata during the original trip when Jutta Brendemühl and Debashis Sinha traveled there from their home in Toronto to adopt Leena. The image has not only come to represent a fond memory of family formation but has also become the model for making a new memory. Seven years after the photograph was taken, the family returned to India to visit the sites of Leena’s early years. During this return journey, the whole family was determined to recreate this photograph. Jutta remembered jokingly, “I was going to India for that photo!” and Leena was looking forward to it as well.[28]

The second photograph shows a much larger Leena wearing a bright red sari, again lifted in her mother’s arms. Together they pose in the same entryway, bathed in sunlight with the distinctive curving wrought-iron outlined behind them. Leena’s hair is longer than before, wisping below her ears with her bangs still cut bluntly across her forehead. Jutta wears a long grey cardigan with dark rimmed glasses. They both smile: Leena close-lipped but alert and expectant, and Jutta looking pleased with her lips pursed. The making of this photograph was both a meaningful and meaning-making part of this transnational return to India.

Alt-text: A white woman stands in a wrought-iron doorway smiling, holding a South Asian toddler.Figure 4: Debashis Sinha, Jutta and Leena, Kolkata, West Bengal, India, gift of the Sinha/Brendemühl family, June 14, 2009, Digital photograph, © Royal Ontario Museum, courtesy of The Family Camera Network.
Alt-text: A white woman stands in a wrought-iron doorway smiling, holding a South Asian child.Figure 5: Debashis Sinha, Jutta holding her daughter, Leena, Kolkata, West Bengal, India, gift of the Sinha/Brendemühl family, December 22, 2015, Digital photograph, © Royal Ontario Museum, courtesy of The Family Camera Network.

This practice of reproducing an original photograph of memories past fits within a broader contemporary popular genre of photographic practice, whereby family members and friends recreate old childhood photographs and show them side-by-side. Lacking substantive scholarly analysis, this genre of what I would call “recreation photography” has gained contemporary popularity on photo-sharing websites like Reddit and Imgur, where they have been compiled by “clickbait” sites. In some, cute poses of toddlers and children become remade into absurd and funny recreations by now-adult subjects. In others, photographs of children holding their infant siblings become recreated into full grown adults comically sitting on the laps of their older siblings. The outfits and styles of decades past can be recreated as well with adults donning Day-Glo and denim overalls reminiscent of the popular fashion trends of their childhoods.[29]

The genre itself is an act of kinship defined by the preservation of the original memory and the social act of reproducing it: the family and friends within the photographs are literally brought back together in the conscious suggestion that even after all this time and “growing up,” the relationship remains the same. Thus, they call upon the temporality between them to signal continuity. Although the new image appears to be an attempt at reproduction, it does not actually attempt to be the first. Rather, its legibility depends precisely on its concurrent replicative qualities and differentiation from the first photograph. In other words, it must replicate the first photograph enough to be recognized as a reproduction but be different enough to mark the passage of time. The images thus represent the continued kinship of the people within them, invoking and making visible the time, intentionality, and physical labor to bring their bodies together in specific ways. As Marianne Hirsch writes, “Familial subjectivity is constructed relationally, and in these relations I am always both self and other(ed), both speaking and looking subject and spoken and looked at object: I am subjected and objectified.”[30] In the pairs of photographs, we recognize the subjects looking at themselves as both subject and object of familial recreation.

Within the transnational adoption context, the transnational journey thus becomes imbricated within the act of photographic recreation.[31] In the Sinha-Brendemühl family, the two photographs situated together in the literal and figurative family album reflect both the potentiality of photography to produce new images altogether as well as produce new transnational events within the family (such as returning to the specific location in India for the visit). They display the pair of photographs in their home, along the staircase they walk up and down every day. As Debashis Sinha described,

It’s something that Leena sees every day. We wanted to put them, not high up, so as you go up the stairs, you see them. And we have photos of Jutta’s family, my family, just all the way up the stairs...And [Jutta] was like “Put them on the stairs, so Leena can see them when she crawls up.” And they become part of her visual DNA.[32]

As Debashis suggests, the representational power of the photographs is made material through their physical centrality within their home and the familiarity they invoke. DNA is used as a powerful metaphor for an engrained kinship produced, not by genetics, but by the repeated act of seeing. In this context, the transnational becomes incorporated into the very kinship produced by adoption and its visual representation. This is not simply due to the categorical description of their adoption as occurring across national borders, but rather and more importantly, emergent from the way crossing national borders has become inherent to the photographic and affective narrative of their family’s formation.

Indeed, the photographs themselves are also transnational material objects, having crossed the same national borders as the adoptive family. As Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart write, “Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space and thus in social and cultural experience.... they occupy spaces, move into different spaces, following lines of passage and usage that project them through the world.”[33] Tracing the materiality of these photographs further demonstrates the ways in which the transnational is produced and made meaningful through the physical movement of people and objects.

The material production of these photographs thus mirrors and reflects the very transnational movement Jutta and Debashis embodied to adopt their daughter. Literally produced in the multi-sited supply chains of global capitalism, the camera traveled from Canada to India with them as they embarked on that initial journey to adopt Leena.[34] There, they took the first photograph, and brought it back to Canada in digital form where it was printed, reproduced, and physically placed within their home. Incorporated into the narrative of travel back to India years later, the first photograph incites the transnationality of the second photograph in the same way. Taken in one nation, moved across borders, and made material in another, the photographs personify the mobility and affective circulation inherent to the transnational.

In this context, the nation and its borders are meaningful less in the presumed stable demarcation of the governed and rather in the very mobility of nationhood as it is incorporated into the meaning of kinship. As Edwards and Hart further argue, “An approach that acknowledges the centrality of materiality allows one to look at and use images as socially salient objects, as active and reciprocal rather than simply implications of authority, control and passive consumption on the one hand, or of aesthetic discourses and the supremacy of individual vision on the other.”[35] Indeed, photographs both visually represent the transnationality of the family and also participate in its production as transnational though their ability to be “active and reciprocal.”

As a broader framework for analyzing race, kinship, and visuality, transnationality and the use of “trans-” that it deploys extends beyond a simple categorical description of adoption practice. It offers new ways of thinking about family narrative and the potential of photography in shaping kinship over time. Smiling family photographs not only capture intimate memories but also represent larger social and historical structures that make family formation across race and nation possible.

While the transnational challenges traditional conceptualizations of national borders, the governance and embodied effects of nationhood continue to be as real as ever. For example, amidst and beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic, forms of mobility and kinship are even further impacted by the structures of power and privilege that dictate who can and cannot cross borders on a global scale. As mobility around the world continues to be shaped by concerns about public health and safety, concepts that are always already contested and racialized, we should anticipate that kinship practices and the role of photography will continue to shape the meaning of transnational in new and unexpected ways. Family photography will not only capture these formations in the moment but will also participate in the very constitution of what new forms of transnational kinship mean.

LiLi Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on Asian American racial formation and multiculturalism, family and kinship, and photography studies. Her work has been published in journals including Photography & Culture and Adoption & Culture. She is currently working on a book project titled Family Conceptions: Technologies of Asian American Family Formation, which theorizes different technological systems and non-biological forms of kinship to examine Asian American family formation from the twentieth century to the present.


    1. The popularity of the term “transnational adoption” since the 1990s has come to replace previous usages of “intercountry” or “international” adoption. As Eleana Kim explains, the popularization of the term among academics “is largely a result of the theoretical interest in transnational processes related to ‘globalization.’” Eleana Kim, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), xiii.return to text

    2. Inderpal Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).return to text

    3. This also applies to countries in Europe, wherein, the specific national relationship to the “sending” country is distinct from the United States and yet white European adoptive parents still benefit from the global and national circumstances by which Asian children are available for adoption. For more on transnational adoption to Europe and globally, see Barbara Yngvesson, Belonging in an Adopted World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Laura Briggs Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).return to text

    4. “The Family Camera Network,” The Family Camera Network, accessed January 30, 2021, http://familycameranetwork.org/. The Family Camera Network archive is a collaborative project on family photography housed within the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives (formerly the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives).return to text

    5. Patricia Holland, “Introduction: History, Memory and the Family Album,” in Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, ed. Jo Spence and Patricia Holland (London: Virago Press, 1991), 1. return to text

    6. Matthew Guterl, Seeing Race in Modern America, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 83-84.return to text

    7. First Person Plural, DVD, directed by Deann Borshay Liem (San Francisco: Center for Asian American Media, 2000). The Center for Asian American Media is formerly known as the National Asian American Telecommunication Association.return to text

    8. For further analysis on First Person Plural within Asian American Studies, see Jodi Kim, “An ‘Orphan’ with Two Mothers: Transnational and Transracial Adoption, the Cold War, and Contemporary Asian American Cultural Politics,” American Quarterly 61, no. 4 (December 2009); David Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); and Catherine Choy, Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoptions in America (New York: New York University Press, 2013).return to text

    9. Choy, Global Families, 135.return to text

    10. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, “What is Visual Culture?,” in Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (SAGE Publications, 1999), 4.return to text

    11. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship, 10.return to text

    12. Judith S. Modell, Kinship with Strangers: Adoption and Interpretations of Kinship in American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.return to text

    13. For more exploration of adoption narratives and the theme of family love and belonging in this context, see also Margaret Homans, The Imprint of Another Life: Adoption Narratives and Human Possibility (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2013).return to text

    14. Kim Park Nelson, Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences, and Racial Exceptionalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 132.return to text

    15. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980), 27.return to text

    16. Kit Myers, “‘Real’ Families: The Violence of Love in New Media Adoption Discourse,” Critical Discourse Studies 11, no. 2 (2014), 176.return to text

    17. For more on the circumstances that gave rise to transnational adoption from Korea, see also SooJin Pate, From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Deann Borshay Liem also explores this history in her most recent film Geographies of Kinship, (Berkeley: Mu Films, 2019).return to text

    18. For more on the formation of adult Korean adoptee communities and shared experiences, see chapters

      “Adoptee Kinship” and “Public Intimacies and Private Politics” in Eleana Kim, Adopted Territory and “Adoptees as White Koreans: Identity, Racial Visibility, and the Politics of Passing among Korean American Adoptees” in Kim Park Nelson, Invisible Asians.return to text

    19. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship, 94.return to text

    20. Detailed ethnographic descriptions of the process for adopting from China can be found in Sara Dorow, Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship (New York: New York University Press, 2006) and Andrea Louie, How Chinese Are You? Adopted Chinese Youth and Their Families Negotiate Identity and Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2015).return to text

    21. Sara Dorow, “Bringing Transnationalism Home: Mobility and Locality in China-Canada Adoption,” in Trans-Pacific Mobilities: The Chinese and Canada, ed. Lloyd L. Wong (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017), 239.return to text

    22. Roland Barthes, “The Photograph Message,” Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 18.return to text

    23. Sara Dorow, When You Were Born in China: A Memory Book for Children Adopted from China (St. Paul: Yeong & Yeong Book Company, 1997). The book was part of a series that included Brian Boyd, When You Were Born in Korea: A Memory Book for Children Adopted from Korea (St. Paul: Yeong & Yeong Book Company, 1993) and Therese Bartlett, When You Were Born in Vietnam: A Memory Book for Children Adopted from Vietnam (St. Paul: Yeong & Yeong Book Company, 2001).return to text

    24. Dorow, When You Were Born in China, 4. For more on the impact of China’s one-child policy on transnational adoption from China, see Kay Ann Johnson, China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, And The Human Costs Of The One-Child Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).return to text

    25. Ibid., 8-9return to text

    26. Ibid., 13-14return to text

    27. Dorow, “Bringing Transnationalism Home,” 250.return to text

    28. Interview with Jutta Brendemühl and Debashis Sinha, November 22, 2016, Family Camera Network Archive, Royal Ontario Museum.return to text

    29. For examples, see “50 Siblings Photos From Childhood Hilariously Recreated Years Later,” deMilked, accessed September 13, 2020, https://www.demilked.com/siblings-recreated-childhood-photos/; “Recreations,” Awkward Family Photos, accessed September 13, 2020, https://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/category/photos/recreations/; Julija Neje, “Before And After: 30 Of The Most Creative Recreations Of Childhood Photos,” boredpanda, Posted 2014, accessed September 13, 2020, https://www.boredpanda.com/before-after-childhood-photo-recreation/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic; Greta Jaruseviciute, “193 Siblings Who Hilariously Recreated Their Childhood Photos,” boredpanda, Posted 2017, accessed September 13, 2020, https://www.boredpanda.com/siblings-childhood-photo-recreation/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic; The Luxton Brothers, “Then/Now,” accessed September 13, 2020, https://then-and-now-photos.tumblr.com/.return to text

    30. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 9.return to text

    31. This practice has also been observed by ethnographers of adoption from China. Dorow writes about an adoptive mother who returns to China with her adopted daughter and insists that she “pose near the sport where they had been photographed ten years earlier.” “Bringing Transnationalism Home,” 250. Andrea Louie also discusses the White Swan Hotel near the American Embassy in China and its “now-famous red sofa on which babies are propped up for group photos” and that has “become an important element of adoptive family lore.” How Chinese Are You?, 80.return to text

    32. Interview with Jutta Brendemühl and Debashis Sinha, November 22, 2016, Family Camera Network Archive, Royal Ontario Museum.return to text

    33. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, “Introduction: photographs as objects,” in Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, ed. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (London: Routledge, 2004), 1.return to text

    34. While tracing the global supply chains of commercial cameras would be a generative theorization of the transnational flows of consumer goods, it is outside the scope of this article. However, understanding that the camera itself is a material object that possesses a globally mobile “life” of its own provides a foundation for approaching photography from a materialist and new materialist perspective. For further theorization on the ontology of “things,” see Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1. (Autumn 2001); Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009). For more on the circulation and mobility of capital within global capitalism see, Kaushik Sundar Rajan, Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics, and Governance in Global Markets (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).return to text

    35. Edwards and Hart, “Introduction: photographs as objects,” 15.return to text