photo detectives

A year or two after we moved into our house, I created a photo wall at its heart. The photos – all black and white or sepia-toned portraits of (mostly) unsmiling ancestors, greet us as we walk up from the front door.

My grandmother as a baby, brown toes poking out from a lacy white dress, dark hair combed across her head. My other grandmother, relaxing with her beau – my future grandfather – at a picnic with another couple. An anonymous ancestor at her first communion. My mother in law with her family, a stiff but jaunty bow on her head. My great grandfather standing tall and serious. My grandparents in law, in a teaching college class photo. A quintessentially Dutch photo featuring a random (but undoubtedly related to me) couple with a bike between them. All of them clustered together, tracing family lineages that criss cross the hemispheres.

I have more historical photos in digital albums. At Christmas, I created a digital archive of all of my dad’s old family photos. In February, my aunt gave me a jump drive with another collection of photos, this time from my mother’s side of the family. And then there’s the online family tree project my cousin started.

All of these photos function as windows into stories of the past. Not just my stories, but stories of life in general. What did it mean to have one’s photo taken? To whom did one give photos? What kinds of events did photos mark? Who took the photos? And where were they taken?

Given that my grandmother was born in Suriname, along South America’s northern coast, why is my great grandmother holding her daughter in a stiff pose, wearing full formal early twentieth-century European dress while standing in front of an idyllic, if fanciful English-garden-esque backdrop? I start to sweat just looking at the photo. I can’t even begin to imagine how hot they must have been.

Who was the couple holding a bike on a cobbled street? Whose bike was it? Which street was it? What can their clothes tell me? Why aren’t they smiling?

Where was my grandmother picnicking? What did they eat? What was she wearing?

What can these photos tell me about life in the early twentieth century? And what happens when these varied lives come together onto a single wall?

Lots and lots of questions.

Student at the University of Michigan recently embarked on a photo mission of their own. Starting with two nineteenth-century photo albums of an African-American family and then looking at city directories, newspapers and census returns, they developed a social history of everyday African-American life in the late nineteenth century. In the process, they also learned about the history of photography.

You can see the results of their work – and their still unanswered questions – on the project website:

In the early 2000s, Kagan Goh embarked on a different photo dectective project. Armed with a framed photograph of a samurai warrior and a photo album dated 1939, both of which his brother had purchased at a garage sale from a man who had found them in his attic, he decided to find the family to whom these portraits belonged. In Goh’s words:

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1942, Japanese Canadians were ordered to turn over property and belongings to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property as a “protective measure only.”  Caught in the whirlwind of anti-Japanese hysteria and paranoia, all of the Japanese descendents living in Canada at the time were rounded from their homes and herded off to internment camps and declared “enemy aliens.”  They had no choice but to leave everything behind.  The album was left behind when the family was interned and their possessions were either seized by the Canadian government and sold for a pittance, or stolen by looters.  They lost everything.

I remember reading about the story in a Vancouver newspaper. Goh, together with a colleague, contacted the papers and Japanese community organizations in their search. Ultimately, after a few years of searching, they succeeded, and the album and photo went ‘home’ to their original owner, Kay Kamitakahara. Since then, Goh has made a film about this story. Entitled “Stolen Memories,” its premise is simple: “If you had to walk out of your present life in 48 hours, possibly never to return, what would you take with you? What would you leave behind?”

It’s a haunting question.


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