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.