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ID photo of Dien Pham and Mau Nguyen, with their children David, Hanh, and Tuan, taken upon upon their arrival at Ban Thad refugee camp in Thailand, 1988. This image was used to promote the exhibition Vietnam in the Rearview Mirror held at Seattle's Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in 2014. Courtesy of Hanh Pham.

Photographies Journal: Critical Issues in Photography Today. University of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, May 18–19, 2017.

In celebration of the tenth anniversary of photographies, the journal held a conference to revisit their original agenda in light of the issues facing contemporary photographic practices. The conference welcomed papers that posited new agendas for theorizing photography as a heterogeneous medium and further developed the history and theory of photography in consideration of new economic, technological, and political frameworks.

My paper overviewed contemporary photographic practices that are rethinking the familial archives as part of the documentation of exilic, transmigratory, and refugee experiences. Included here is the abstract for my paper "Lost and Found: The Family Photo Album as Documentation of Refugee Experience."


ABSTRACT

Lost and Found: The Family Photo Album as Documentation of Refugee Experience

In his 2011 interactive installation Erasure, artist Dinh Q. Lê scattered thousands of small black-and-white photographs on the gallery floor. Viewers were invited to hold and contemplate the images, which included self-portraits, family photos, and passport pictures. Removed from context, these “orphan” images had been lost and found among the debris of the refugee crisis in 1970s Vietnam, Lê’s homeland. The unknowable sea of photos served to visualize the innumerable memories of enforced exile and the inescapable desire to put the pieces back together. By looking at the works of artists including Lê, Melanie Friend, and Kevin McElvaney, who have employed family photographs to document refugee experience, this paper examines how contemporary documentations of exile have been reconceptualizing the family photo album. The artistic projects examined in this research address significant issues related to the intersections of public and private spheres within the formation of collective history. As everyday records, these endeavors re-center discourses of war and its aftermath from geo-political conditions to subjective struggles of survival. Family photos taken amidst periods of oppression or refuge can expose histories that may otherwise have been erased from official archives. As they compile images of refugee life, these projects weave together those who have been dispersed and left behind with those who have been met along the way, creating a migrating vision of family and community. How might the assemblage of these photo albums contribute to an ideation of the collective that is at once bound together and forever in flux? What has been lost, preserved, uncovered, and changed within the production and circulation of these counter archives? The works discussed in this essay begin to map these newly forming, hybrid geographies of culture and kinship.