Thomas Allen Harris of Family Pictures USA on the Power of Personal Storytelling
Harris is a masterful storyteller—and the co-founder and executive producer of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR), a project that promotes multicultural connections with an emphasis on respecting and understanding diverse backgrounds. By using all forms of media and personal storytelling, Harris helps people connect through various PBS projects and shows that he hosts throughout the country.
What inspired you to help people foster connections with one another? Can you describe these gatherings and what stories they surface?
I come from a family of photographers, and I have been consumed with using family archives to uncover personal truths about my immediate and extended family. My late stepfather, B. Pule Leinaeng, left South Africa in 1960 to heed Nelson Mandela’s call to build a global anti-apartheid movement. When he died, I took his family album and photographic archives back to South Africa, reintroducing his story to young people who had not heard it before. Out of that experience came my film Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela. That was the first time I got a chance to see how family albums could reconnect people with a history that deeply affected them.
From this experience, I felt called to help others around the country uncover their own family histories. After our first few roadshows, it was inspiring to see just how much people were longing to connect not only to their pasts, but also to others inside and outside of their communities. Family photographs, home movies, and the stories within them are the key vehicles that allow this to happen; they illuminate how we all are contributors to history. Unlike the troves of digital images on Facebook and Instagram, the family album centers us. When we bring all of these photos and stories from various communities together, a more nuanced and diverse historical narrative is revealed that spans generations and geographies that, at its core, reveals the reality of our shared story and collective history.
At each community photo-sharing event, we work with local partners to invite people from various backgrounds to present images long-stored in photo albums or stashed away in dusty boxes. Together, we use these pictures as a starting point to engage in conversations and journeys through origin stories and tales of hardship, perseverance, and love. Every roadshow event is unique because of the people who are gathered there and the particular photos that they show, which results in a metanarrative of that community. Family photos of everyday milestones — marriage, childhood, a new car, a growing business — provide a visual portal through which to examine the roots, surprising connections, and provocative parallels that shed light on our collective past and our shared future. There is an undeniable spirit of warmth, joy, and connectedness that emerges as stories are shared and new collective virtual families are born.
"It was inspiring to see just how much people were longing to connect not only to their pasts, but also to others inside and outside of their communities."
In bringing people together and showcasing deeply personal stories, there’s a lot of heavy emotion that's involved. How do you sustain yourself, and manage to work in such an emotional landscape for the long term? Can you share some of the most emotional stories you’ve uncovered?
Empowerment lies at the core of the work that I do. I help people around the nation to feel heard, seen, and valued by giving them space and a platform in which to engage in the visual storytelling of their personal histories. Our community photo-sharing events, which include hundreds of participants, are the core of our project. Our content comes out of these live storytelling events. Participants leave with a larger appreciation for their own history as well as the stories and struggles of others. Our events and the short- and long-form content that flows out of them foster deeper levels of understanding about, and connections to, stories that may have otherwise remained hidden forever. It is incredibly rewarding. The emotional landscape is one in which I’m not only comfortable, but a space in which I thrive. I feel like I was destined to do this work.
This process of community photo-sharing has led us to so many incredible revelations and reunions. Just last year, two 2nd cousins in Florida met each other for the first time simply through connecting a photo, a name, and a story! One of them was raised in the city, and the other was raised in the country. They both recalled the same great-uncle telling them the same stories while taking them out to cut down swamp cabbage. Uniting these two at our workshop for the first time ever was an exciting experience, to say the least. People were also discovering new things about photos that they’d had all their lives. One young woman with a portrait of her great grandmother opened the frame so that we could scan the image, and we discovered that behind that was another photo that she had never seen before. You can imagine her surprise to not only find this hidden image, but to also see that she and her great grandmother looked uncannily alike, even down to the haircut.
"Participants leave with a larger appreciation for their own history as well as the stories and struggles of others."
As digital media continues to dominate our culture, how has that shaped the work you do? Does it help perpetuate your work, or does it hinder it? How can we hold onto the past in our ever-changing future? How does your business integrate new technology to showcase items of the past?
One of the many things that I found interesting doing this work over the past 10 years is how rarely our relatives took photos depicting their everyday lives, especially when compared to the abundance of photos we take today. This digital age makes it easier than ever to pass on and maintain our visual stories through social media. All of a sudden, everyone’s a photographer! We’re literally swimming in images because almost nothing goes undocumented. While it’s great that we’re taking more images, they’re also more disposable. The problem is that we don’t curate them.
Digital media’s domination in our culture has influenced how I emphasize the importance of finding photos from today, and our pasts, that hold meaning to us, that tell the stories of who we are, and that add richness to our personal histories. I often encourage people to select and print out one or two photos every couple of months, and at the end of a few years, they have images that truly mean something. Printing out those photos and placing them into albums or frames that sit or hang next to the photographs of our pasts grounds us and connects us to our visual histories in a tangible way. Similarly, new digitizing technology has allowed us to bring old photographs to life that can now move through virtual spaces, being seen and appreciated by countless people that would have never otherwise gotten the chance.
"Digital media’s domination in our culture has influenced how I emphasize the importance of finding photos from today, and our pasts, that hold meaning to us, that tell the stories of who we are, and that add richness to our personal histories."
Your projects – Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, Through A Lens Darkly, and the Family Pictures USA series — rely heavily on creating a story and forming it into something others will appreciate. How do you begin the process of making a story that people will care about? How do you market personal stories to consumers?
We all have personal stories, whether they center around a birthday or a graduation, a family vacation or a child’s first day of school. All of these experiences are part of a collective just as much as they are personal and unique. Family photographs and memories are not only of interest to the families sharing them, but to the rest of us as well. They capture our hearts as consumers as they introduce us to relatives and old friends —fascinating characters, brought back to life by images and stories — who now have a new home in our collective consciousness, and who become part of our own extended families.
Some of our responses to this new collective expanded family and to Family Pictures USA include:
- “I just watched the show [and] it made me cry. Because, this is what my country is supposed to be about. How we are connected and how we can learn from each other,”
- ''This is the type of tonic our nation needs to remedy our division. Your sharing of our loving blend of families and cultures provides a place for us to give our attention and grow our love for each other,” and
- “Thank you for allowing us to be part of what I believe will become a symbol of reconnecting us to the root of our culture and ourselves!”
"They capture our hearts as consumers as they introduce us to relatives and old friends — fascinating characters, brought back to life by images and stories — who now have a new home in our collective consciousness, and who become part of our own extended families."
As we move into a new decade, how will DDFR evolve and continue its purpose? What is the most important thing you have learned through your projects? Why is your initiative so timely and important at this moment in time?
Moving forward into 2020, our Family Pictures USA project continues to grow and reach new audiences. I have been invited to keynote at numerous philanthropic conferences across the country. The philanthropy community sees our methodology as a way to better serve and understand their grantees and partners. With philanthropic support, we are developing toolkits, public art projects, as well as collaborations with other artists. We are working to co-create a nuanced and diverse American family album with a new frame of reference for what defines our nation. Cultivating this energy of discovery — the discovery of meaning on a personal level and a larger communal level — will always be a key part of this work. Sifting through family pictures, for example, motivates people to see their artifacts in new ways and to use them as raw material to be able to create - in the form of books, artworks, short films, etc. It also allows us to begin to see one another in more profound ways. By weaving together those stories over the course of multiple generations, we as a nation are better able to understand our familial narratives as an integral part of our collective social and cultural history.
Over the past 11 years, we’ve built an archive of around 50,000 images as well as over 4,000 interviews with people around their family albums. We are developing an interface to make the archive accessible for scholars, storytellers, and fellow artists to use. In addition, we have begun working with a number of new media start-ups to collaborate using our content. We are also excited to utilize various digital and broadcast platforms within our community photo-sharing events so that we can expand the audiences who share their individual family stories and photographs and interact with people outside of their own communities. In these real times and virtual spaces, people can foster new connections and continue to build the community that makes up our Digital Diaspora Family and photo album. This initiative will help to break down the stereotypes and other barriers that divide us, and in this way, it is immensely timely. In our exploration of the all-inclusive spectrums of the American family that we uncover from community to community, we will come to see more of ourselves in each other and lean more into our commonalities. As the themes and similarities between family photos and stories coalesce, a meta-narrative forms and a new national family album emerges that fully enriches the visual narrative of this country. At a time where we need to be grounded in who we are, acknowledging our common roots through sharing family photos illuminates the path to a stronger, more cohesive, country and world.
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