Why do Family Photos Outgrow the Frames?

Ece Gökalp
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Family photos and on the manipulation of photographs...


There is a photograph of 50x40 cm printed on canvas right before me. I took this photo on a flight from Kars to Istanbul: one can see the snowy mountains, fields and roads. I have made punctures in my mother's portrait on the photo last night using a needle; when you hold it to light you can vaguely see the punctures. My mother's face will be engraved on this very photo, but why? Why do I need to embroider my mother's face onto the photo rather than showing my mother's picture and this photo side by side?

First of all, I would like to address the question "Why embroidery?" Photography by nature, necessitates speed, the act of photographing is simply to capture the moment (even if the moments are incapturable) and record it. As for embroidery, it is an arduous craft which requires concentration, occupying hours and days of work - and I do not use a sewing machine. It is a craft which was historically encouraged for housewives to prevent them from intellectual activities in their spare times in the middle ages, a handicraft that was carefully set apart from the category of art - oh, men! - and until recently was associated - at least in Turkey - with housewives.* So, even if I have taken loads of photos of myself and my mom, in this project I decided I just could not make myself clear solely by taking photos, so I started embroidering our portraits on these prints for an extended period.

Even if I usually try to find the photographic aspect of particular incidents and approach them in these terms when I do research on the subjects I am interested in, I sometimes come to think that there is a poor connection between the things I occupy myself with and the photographs I take. The things I like to photograph and the ideas I would like to express do not always coincide. I guess this has to do with my belief in the fact that multilayered phenomenon can only be narrated through multilayered processes and practices, rather than my abilities as a photographer. Therefore, my objective is not to do photography for the sake of it. But because I have this passionate relationship with photography, it is a tool I frequently use to convey what I have to say. Photography for me is more than some moment tried to be "captured" and when I think about the history of photography, it is easy to think of many people who made similar discussions.

Let's get back to family photographs. For Barthes, "photography" is a gamut of performances taking place right before the photographer.* As for Gil Pasternak, family photographs "constitute records of lives never lived." In theoretical works on family photographs, lack or deceptiveness of representation of "family" in photographs is a subject that is mostly referred to. Hence, it was inevitable for me to manipulate photographs to express my ideas about family photographs I have been working on for some time and the issue of representation. I found it really hard to express the lack of women's names in the family tree which was tracked by a distant relative of mine, poses of women in the family photos I have found usually clumsy, my grandfather's short-dated career as a photographer and seeing that he had only taken 3 photos of my grandmother (as far as I am concerned), and all my inner conflicts centered upon issues on gender, representation, family, roles and ill fortunes, through a single-layered work. Actually, if we consider the fact that many of the family antiques I have included in the project were produced, appropriated, abandoned and manipulated by so many people before, my manipulation is just a final one, not the first.

I would like to broach the subject of multi-layeredness by giving some examples. I embroider my and my mother's portrait on highlands, for I would like to combine the two different dialogues I have deep inside me: things I see and do when I go to foreign lands just to take photographs, and conversations I have with my mother within myself. I consider these conversations neither as a dialogue nor a monologue, for usually there is another voice responding to me, representing the mountains or my mother. This voice, even if I know it to be mine, I cannot help but think that it could belong to my mother or all those landscapes on another level. These connections will be invisible to the viewers who never read this essay; anyway I don't expect this much detail to be understood on such an autobiographical subject - surely, not everything is for the viewers - rather, a question as to "Why?", and any relevant/irrelevant ideas based on this question is enough for me. In fact, all parts of the project don't have to be open as in a book.

I have another photograph in my hand. This one is worn from being folded. I guess it had spent lots of time in my grandpa's pocket, despite its small-size, couldn't somehow find another pocket proper to its size, and on it there is a mise-en-scene of curiosity. Back in the days, the photo was taken to another photo shop, and the photographer was asked to fix the damaged parts of the photo, enlarge and reproduce it. In the picture, my uncle is reading a newspaper in his school uniform – as a source of pride for his illiterate parents; my grandma cannot look into the camera due to her mother's cautions not to do so – she was taught about Islam's relation to image; another uncle of mine posed in his school uniform; the boys with the uniform are wearing shoes – I think of it as a reward for going to school; my mother, aunt and another uncle are looking to the camera with all their childishness and their poor clothes; but there is something in my mother's face. When I see the original photo I got from my cousin, I realize this: In the original photo, the photographer duplicated my youngest uncle's face because some of my mother's face was not visible, and must have convinced he recovered the photo. Though a girl's face on the photo would have been much more convenient, it was only an insignificant detail for the photographer.

The reading of this photo reminds me of Barthes' discussion about his mother's photograph: "I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary'; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your stadium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound."

At first, it seems to me that Barthes – maybe intentionally - has taken a point for granted: Those who look at Barthes' "Winter Garden Photograph" after reading his analysis, would like to see the photo itself with a curiosity, and we establish a relation with it not in terms of what he has said about the photograph, but rather in terms of our curiosity about the photo itself. Secondly, I ponder upon the problem that family photographs themselves do not express what is written about them. Let's think out loud: What I feel when I see my mother when she was 3 or 4 with her own mother in the same picture, can only be felt by my siblings, even so it is certain we won't be having the same feelings. Our relation with our mother is different; we all have different phantasies about her. My grandmother is a figure who cannot go beyond a phantasy, all we know is that she was our mother's mother and died when she was 35 from an illness. What can those photographs mean for those other than our (nuclear or extended) family?

In itself, it would be futile to display my family photos and expect the viewers to think in my terms. In any case, what I try to express through family keepsakes are specifically things occurring in my own family, they are not things told in family photographs: They are things that are there even though nothing is told; it is the notion of punctum I am trying to pinpoint. I would like to tell about what it means to be a mother, what it should not be, my own rebellions, invisibility of women or in what ways they are visible. And I tell about those things by using fabrics, embroidery, by writing a diary in response to my grandfather's diary, etc…I try to make use of practices that are associated with femininity and not considered as art because of this association. I want to point to women who are not commemorated in family trees: look, they are there! I try to touch upon the viewers' personal histories through autobiographical objects; fertility is also an important subject in your life; I want to talk about fertility, infertility, giving birth, not giving birth, being born and all that can be told about birth. And I express myself better through photography; but not "only" photography, rather through the virtue of photography. So, the family photographs I have transcend their frames, boundaries, lose their initial purpose, essential objective, they are in a way reincarnated through a new meaning I attribute to them, but without losing their old meanings and functions.