By Hillary M. Fink
An Interview with
Thomas Allen Harris
Redefining the lens we use to look at our family photographs, Thomas Allen Harris’ series Family Pictures USA provides us with the opportunity to transform our relationship with the traditional family album beyond its sentimental value through the act of storytelling. Helping us to reexamine our photographs as artifacts and portals into our history as people and a community, Harris has provided a platform to illuminate who we are as Americans with the hopes of creating a national family album.
With award-winning films such as Through A Lens Darkly (2014) and É Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001), Harris’ work as a documentary producer, photographer and artist is centered in seeing ourselves beyond our differences and coming together by viewing ourselves in the contexts of humanity and community. “The participatory model of filmmaking I’ve developed throughout my career examines intergenerational exchange and themes of progression, transference, and renewal within movements and communities,” says Harris. Looking beyond our differences in a rapidly evolving age of media, he hopes that this series will provide the opportunity to come together through the context of humanity and pave way for a new America.
Tell us about your background as a photographer and film producer.
I was raised around photographers and activists. My grandfather was an early influence. He would photograph the family in our Sunday best and direct films documenting our neighborhood and church. He left behind an enormous archive that has catalyzed my archiving, film, and photography practice. My step father…
The family album and the archive play a central role in my deeply personal films VINTAGE- Families of Value (1995), É Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001), and The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2005). My recent film Through A Lens Darkly (2014) - community engagement and transmedia project. The participatory model of filmmaking I’ve developed throughout my career examine intergenerational exchange and themes of progression, transference, and renewal within movements and communities.
Your current project Family Pictures USA focuses on the family album, can you speak more to this project and what inspired it?
Family Pictures USA is a documentary-style magazine show, filmed before a live studio audience, that journeys through a rapidly changing landscape where the foundations of a familiar and idealized “AMERICA” are being transformed. As ordinary Americans begin to discover their hidden family histories, stashed in boxes in dusty attics or on old floppy disks and new smartphones, they will unpack more than artifacts and ephemera. They will re-meet their relatives and old friends — fascinating characters, brought back to life by images and stories — giving them a new home in our collective consciousness, and introducing us to a more nuanced and diverse story of our common history, shared present and evolving future. Family Pictures USA will mine this rich treasure trove of personal narratives to reveal roots, connections, and provocative parallels that will surprise us and illuminate the path toward a new America for a 21st Century.
Family Pictures USA emerged out of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion LLC (DDFR), a transmedia community engagement project I founded in 2009 which has built and refined a community photo sharing model. DDFR uses photography, film, live events, social media, and storytelling to expand on family histories. DDFR has held live events in cities across the USA and around the globe. To date, we’ve interviewed over 2,500 people and gathered in excess of 30,000 images.
Why the family album? What can it provide to us as individuals, a community, or even a country?
Family albums ground a sense of who we are and where we came from.
One particular film that made me realize the hidden power of the album, and transformed my relationship with it:
My stepfather, Lee, … group of 12 young men… built the anti-apartheid movement in exile. Lee was the only one of the disciples to use media as his tool of resistance… he documented friends and community during his decades in exile. It was this album that I brought back to South Africa to share with the still living 7 Mandela disciples he had left the country with in 1960.
Lee left South Africa on a mission to spread the anti apartheid message and was only able to return 30 years later. It was his family album that helped him remember the home he was forced to leave behind.
What I found in Bloemfontein, was that there was little visual record of the city’s long history of anti-apartheid resistance or of the 12 Disciples from Bloemfontein. Lee’s photo album filled in these gaps in the history of the city and I wanted to use the album to activate communal memory.
I had the idea to invite young actors to engage with Lee’s album and re-enact the stories that led to their exile. Several of the youth were neighbors of these anti-apartheid heroes but had no idea who they were or what they’d done. This film, “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A son’s tribute to unsung heroes” became a transformative experience for everyone.
It allowed me to connect the generation that came before me with the generation that came after me. The result was that the young actors were able to walk in the footsteps of these heroes, while performing the history of their city. The still living disciples and their families were able to connect with the significance of their own personal journeys and the sacrifices that came with exile. Through this synthesis of archive and remembrance, we expanded the story of the South African liberation struggle to include the city of Bloemfontein while inspiring young South Africans to creatively engage with their history.
I thought, how could I bring this experience to America and use it to create a new national family album? To bring forth images of lost, suppressed or hidden stories from the boxes in attics or under beds, or hard drives or phones - to build a collective album to help us to understand who WE are as Americans. This is how I built the idea of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion and Family Pictures USA, around this idea of the family album.
How does technology play a role in the family album today? Is it a beneficial one?
Family Pictures USA debuts in a rapidly evolving era of digital media, defined in part by algorithms, fake news, and a reliance on over-saturated social media. With legions of images coming one right after the other – the question becomes how do we identify which images are important? How do we keep the important stories of the family album intact?
Despite their double-edged nature, these new technologies may actually be key to achieving a deeper connection to history and community. In the last decade, I’ve used video, photography, performance, and social media to empower individuals to explore and share the rich and revealing narratives found within their family photo albums. I use a transmedia approach, one that incorporates many ways of gathering, organizing, and interacting to share many hours of interviews and tens of thousands of family photographs. As a result, Family Pictures USA can forge new connections… deepening our understanding of our history and our diversity and shared values...
And that may be the true power of technology as it’s applied to intimate acts of looking, sharing, and storytelling: to open spaces for complications and expand how family and community is conceived.
Family Pictures USA is compared to StoryCorps and Antique Roadshow, how is this so?
Like StoryCorps, Family Pictures USA guides participants through a personal narrative in a short interaction with a host/producer, but using photographs and images as the primary medium of the story. Like Antiques Roadshow, Family Pictures USA travels to different locations within a given community, town or region and the surprise is in uncovering little known and unusual personal stories and connecting them to a larger narrative that better contextualizes a particular locale. The value revealed is in how these images inform our larger understanding of the culture, beyond mere family memoir.
You recently filmed your pilot - where did that take place and why did you choose this community?
Our pilot series features the city of Detroit on the 50th anniversary of the rebellion that devastated the Motor City. Working in partnership with Detroit Public TV and cultural and educational institutions, we reached hundreds of thousands of Detroiters. We selected over 100 families to come in and share photo albums that spanned generations, and numerous global origins, to reveal the story of a frontier town that became one of the greatest cities in the nation and captured the imagination of the world. We chose Detroit or Detroit chose us. As our episode demonstrates, Detroit has much to teach us about perseverance, hustle, and triumph over challenges.
We had been communicating with Felicia Davis at Detroit historical society, and also the Ford Foundation had started to amp up activity in Detroit. They reached out to a variety of projects they wanted to bring there, and we were one of them. So it was the historical society and the Ford Foundation. We had already been talking about turning Digital Diaspora Family Roadshow (DDFR) into a TV series, and they allowed us to think of Detroit as a dry-run for our pilot episode. Some ways it kind of feels like fate.
I also have certain family origins in Detroit. My two different sides of the family. I have images of myself as a toddler in Detroit, when my family took me to meet my great grandmother.
We worked with twenty different partners there to do outreach, and we interviewed one hundred families. It’s amazing to learn so much about this city from doing the show. Detroit borders Canada, which has this amazing rich history. We had many native American families from Canada who we interviewed, who came and shared their family photos with us. Like any border city it has that mystery and mixture of languages and cultures. That makes it really exciting.
Family Pictures USA is set to film in two upcoming locations-where are these locations and why did you choose these communities to film in?
One of the locations is Southwest Florida, and we’re going to be working with WGCU TV in the fall. Also in North Carolina, working with UNC TV. On both projects we are working with rural facing communities, or public TV stations that have large rural components. For our FPUSA pilot we were in a major urban environment, and now we are moving from urban to rural communities.
The way these locations evolved was we were talking with different public TV stations to tap into their audiences, and help them produce strong local content. We received grants from various supporters and funders to do research with different stations, such as Alaska, Texas, California, and Massachusetts. We then narrowed it down to two stations. We are still working out the kinks and how it works in various environments and communities. West coast vs. the east coast, rural vs. urban, etc., and if things are going to shift based on the location.
Even though we are shooting in Florida and North Carolina we have people who have families there and are connected to them but they no longer live there. We are aware that families move frequently, so we are also going to be open to shooting people in other states who have albums of their families in those states. We hope that those people will be able to participate, building a family album of both of those particular locations.
We don’t normally use a traditional album anymore, as we are always on our phones. Part of the larger vision of the project is to create a national family album, thinking about what does America look like now.
You are also collaborating with CUNY-Hunter College - can you tell us more about this project?
This summer, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion is partnering with Hunter College and Centro on the development of a community archiving and performance exhibition out of their East Harlem Gallery space. For 2.5 months, rotating exhibits of DDFR’s vast archives will be available for viewing and collaboration by the public, who are invited to attend Community Photo Shares to contribute to and remix an Upper Manhattan oral and photographic archive.
It is an ongoing exhibition for people across the tri-state area who might have connections to Harlem, and who can come and share their stories. It is going to be an installation, working with Hunter graduate students and family pictures. Some students are going to come and work with our archive and create short pieces, such as films and collages. Special guests will come for events, and it will be open to people sharing their family albums and photos.
If people are interested they can reach out to info@familypicturesusa. It will be kind of like a “block party,” where people can come and have fun as we create an extended family.
As you are the host of FPUSA, who else will guide us through the series within each community?
Local historians, longtime residents, people who built the neighborhood, who were drawn to it. The many participants and their photos.
What we are doing is creating community storytelling and connections, and it’s important to have people invited to be a part of this. Community participation and building is at the core of this series, and that’s an important part of my art practice. So that we see one another beyond gender, age, race, etc., and see ourselves in the context of humanity and caretakers of the earth, our communities. That is the epitome of my work as an artist.
Family Pictures USA consists of Community Photo Sharing events - how are these events conducted and what do you believe participants will gain from them?
They take place at various locations of our partners, such as the Detroit Institute for the Arts or Detroit Historical Museum, as well as churches, synagogues, libraries, and museums. People come in with their photographs, and we help them make a selection of the ones that tell a story. We then digitize the images, and then scan them and give them a disc of their scans. We are then able to help them do creative things with their family stories.
We help to transform their relationship with these stories, as they begin to see them as more than sentimental items and more like historical artifacts. They also get an opportunity to see their photos outside of the context of their family. Seeing them, in some ways, different eyes.
This can be a tremendously, transformative experience. Five people can look at a photo, and they will see completely different things. People who are not related to the family in the photographs bring a transformative lens that the family may not see.
The pilot for Family Pictures USA was filmed in Detroit on a very important date, the 50th anniversary of the rebellion that devastated the city, what was that experience of examining and reliving that piece of history with the community like?
It was really intense. The riots, some calling it the rebellion or the devastation, led to a major change in the city. There were circumstances that led to that event and escalated it, like police brutality. A lot of people dispersed after, but we saw that they had this relationship to Detroit. This longing to come back. We found out some people drove two hours to come and share with us. It was quite moving. They shared with one another, and told stories about how their neighborhoods changed, and their memories before the riots.
We did these photo shares over the course of five weeks, and we even brought people back to the site of the riots. It’s beginning to gentrify, but its still kind of the hood, and there’s a park, Gordon Park, that was built for that memory. We had people who came to that neighborhood for the first time, and we did this live photo event and it was so moving. People who attended were saying that they haven’t seen this diversity.
We just did this same event in Oakland for CAAMFest, and they too said that they couldn’t believe the incredible diversity in the audience. The different ages of young and old- even a baby! We had so many ethnicities too-Arab, Finnish, Asian, and Cambodian families, queer families, deaf people.
That’s one of the hallmarks; we are able to bring people together across differences to see our similarities. It almost seems miraculous, because we are kind of balkanized. This gives us an opportunity to hear and listen to one another using the common troupe of the family photo.
What do you seek to accomplish with Family Pictures USA? What do you want communities and your audience to take away from your series?
I want to see what we look like as Americans.
I want to see what we look like as Americans today. I want people to see the value in their family album.
I think that’s just the amazing thing about it. I want us to see how we are as a people. To transform our relationship to the family album to beyond just their sentimental value, and see how they have a connection to our history and our communities.
We can use our photos our tools, to tell a story on american television. Especially on public television. As a documentary film maker I am aware of the power it has to tell the stories we want to tell.
What are some of the ways individuals can become involved? How can one bring Family Pictures USA to their community?
They can reach out to us if they want to become involved. They can email us photographs and a story, and we can create a blog post out of it. We can also link to their blog; And we welcome that. If we get a certain amount of stories from one location, we may begin looking into that area as well.
They can also start to gather together their institutions, and say they want to host a photo sharing event and we can come there.
Our ethos is collaborative filmmaking, so we are always looking for people to work with us. Especially people in education or art making, such as family photos. We would love to hear about it! If you have certain resources or ideas for partnership, that would help us tremendously.
It is best to check out our website to see where we’re going next, because you may have photographs from there and you can become involved virtually.
Read more about Family Pictures USA, and follow its journey by going to the website https://familypicturesusa