Thursday, June 18, 2009

Family photography


Family photographs are taken to remember and to be remembered. They represent individuals who share ties and kinship or household. Family photographs and albums are a medium of interpersonal, small group communication. In this sense, we first offer to our guests the family photo albums. Actually, we serve the guests with the tea (To serve visitors first with hot tea with milk and salt is a tradition in my country) and then give the albums. This way we usually begin our interaction with others. When the guests drink tea, they change just a few words of greetings. While they start to look at the pictures, they ask many things to know or clarify. They may find common things to share or different things seemed exciting. The light discussion based on photographs help me a lot to interact with other people. By nature I am not a talkative person. It is always been hard for me to start discussion with people even I know them very well. Therefore, to offer my guests to see the family albums became a habit for me. Photos can talk on behalf of me because a picture may be “worth of a 1000 words”.

On the other hand, family photographs function as cultural documents serving the needs of social continuity and integration (Chalfen, p.15). We get a lot of information from previously taken family photos and transfer a lot of information by our family photos. My family has many photos albums back in Mongolia, but we brought here several of them. Physically, it was difficult to bring all of them because they would not fit in the luggage. My twin daughters, 13 who came to America five months later than me, selected photos from our family albums. They decided to bring here photos of their grandparents, relatives, cousins, their classmates and our nuclear family photos. They left photos of our friends and pictures of my and their father’s childhood or student hood. They selected dominantly color pictures except three or four black and white pictures. Therefore, this paper will be based on highly selected pictures. By nature, family photos “…are not simple mechanical records of real events”, they are “carefully selected and socially patterned representations of different features of family life” (Musello, p.106). However, my family albums brought to America even more selective; they went through two gate keeping processes: one is by photographers who took the pictures and another is by my daughters who decided what pictures to bring.

As Matthews and Wexler wrote, “Family photographs can be formal or informal, made by professionals or intimates, and taken in a studio, at home or in another location” (p.81). The photos for analysis in this paper are mostly informal pictures taken by amateur photographs including me and my family members except several. Those informal pictures had been taken since 1992 when we possessed an automatic Nikon camera. By that time, a camera was considered one of the luxury things in Mongolian society. Not every family had a camera. But now things are changed. I think families with cameras are more than families without cameras. Before having a camera, we went to studios to be photographed or asked someone to come to our family gatherings. According to Chalfen, “Historically, the production of personal imagery has been the province of the political, aristocratic, or otherwise influential elite. However, the making of snapshots and family albums allows ordinary people to participate in this means of documentation, preservation and communication” (P.15).

Family photography were studied from many perspectives: as a form of folklore (Kotkin 1978), from social class differences (Gardner) and in cross cultural contexts (Chalfen1987) etc. A researcher Kotkin defined three levels of family photography. First, Photographs evoke stories and expressions. Second, they derive from widely shared values and aesthetics. Third, they become part of the rituals (P.6). I am trying to classify my family photos by these three levels and analyze them in this paper.

Photographs evoking stories and expressions

Viewed over time, photographs evoke stories and expressions, and may even serve as the basis for family legends. Among the pictures we brought, our nuclear family pictures are dominating. We did not have a camera when my twin daughters were born. When we first time to bring them to the studio they were five and half months. It was a sudden decision during our walks in the fresh air. Five people are on this pictures (August, 1987) including my husband, my kids, me and my husband’s younger sister who helped us to grow my twins(Figure 1). A few days after this picture a scary thing happened in my family: one of my twins had a terrible stomachache. She got in emergency room and then she spent a month in a hospital mostly with her father. I was between a hospital and home because I suppose to breast feed another one and look after the sick daughter. It was a hard time for me. I thought that I was going to lose her. My mother-in law is very superstitious woman. She believed that we brought my daughters to the studio at wrong time. She had own justification to say that because one boy of her eight children died when he was infant. Some days before his death, she brought him to the studio. He was healthy by that time, but after taking pictures he got sick and doctors could not save his life. His nude picture is still in the family album of my parents-in-law. Fortunately, my daughter’s life was saved. She recovered very slowly. Her teeth came out late and she did her first steps later than another one.

Her late development reflected on the second picture which was taken in 1989, one and half year apart from the first picture of my twins. One of my twins looks smaller and thinner than another one (Figure 2). This was their second birthday. According to Mongolian tradition, we should cut hair of girls when they reach even ages and hair of boys when they reach odd ages starting from three. We intentionally brought them to be photographed. This was not only an expression of parental affection but also a culturally defined duty to the young. This individual photo highlights that their hair was cut of which is very important for Mongolians who traditionally believe that not cutting infant hair brings many downs in a person’s life. A photographer who all day spent to take pictures in the background settings of Sukhbaatar Square, a main square in Ulaanbaatar city, took this picture. When we came to pick up this picture, we found a white spot on the forehead of one daughter. We were very frustrated. The photographer suggested to bring my kids again for taking of another picture. But for my husband and I, it was important to keep the birthday’s picture of my daughters with shiny heads to show them later.

Also, without this picture my twins would hardly believe that they were bow-legged because of deficiency of calcium in their bodies. Currently, they look at this picture and laugh. After that, we went to the studio at least once a year.

Until one of my twins said me “I want to be photographed along”, I did not realize that we are treating the twins like one person: dressing the same clothes, taking their pictures always together and suggesting them to do the same thing. Philosophically, there is no exactly the same people even though they are twins or brothers and sisters. I did think about it but I do not remember did I take a separate picture when she asked. Even teachers at the day care center treated them not separable. Once they invited a studio photographer to the center. The photographer brought male and female national costumes. Each girl and boy was photographed separately but not my twins. To take their photo together they dressed one of the twins like a man and took the picture (Figure 3).

After their younger sister was born, all three of them became subjects on many pictures. My youngest daughter was photographed when she had a hair cut as well but not in studio. Nancy Holm, an American journalist took her picture while we were traveling in the rural area. (Figure 4) This picture has more quality. It was processed in Denmark. Since that time, my youngest daughter became a single subject of our family photography. Her picture taken in July 1999 by a professional photographer Dorjiin Dygar took first place in the photo contest organized by a Japanese photo agency Konica. At that time I was in America and I got this news when I called home. My husband told a history of this photograph after coming here to join me.

Initially, my Japanese friend Norica Sato who gave a kimono to my youngest daughter asked me to send my daughter’s photo wearing the kimono. I wrote e-mail to my husband to send such picture. He asked Dygar to take picture of my daughter. Even though my husband had a camera, he wanted more nice picture relying on an ability of a professional photographer. Dygar took some pictures inside and outside. Then he asked my husband if he could photograph my daughter for the photo contest. His idea was to take a picture on the top of the building. My husband agreed and they got a permission to go to the roof of the building from the manager. (I am sure that if I were at home by that time and if they asked me to take my kid to the top, I would not give a permission.) Some my nephews followed them to support my kid who was only six. He tried several shots and send them to the contest commission. A month later he and my daughter got invitations to come to the ceremony where they found out the picture called “The prayer” took the first place. It is very colorful picture. My daughter in yellow kimono is staying on the roof of the nine story building close to the blue sky. Behind her images of blurred mountains and roofs of other buildings (Figure 5). “Mom, I was scared. It was very windy there” she told me later.

Each photo has own history because “cameras don’t take pictures, people do” (Byer, p.27). Everything related to certain photos on people who take those photos. When my husband do photographing he tends to make nice photos. He is very careful in choosing background settings. In contrast, I prefer to take action photos because they are very natural looking. I don’t like organized photos or juxtapositions. I want to be more agressive than my husband while taking photos. Now my twins already have learned how to photograph and they take pictures they want. We bought them one small digital camera to encourage them in photographing.

As single photographs represent one way that a family images itself in particular time in space, the album is a way of organizing those images into cohesive record of shared experience.

Photographs shared values and aesthetics

People pose in similar ways and have similar settings in their photos. It means those photos derive from widely shared values and aesthetics. Many images in my family albums are made with considerable deliberation. For instance, no matter who was a photographer, subjects in the photos were posed in important background settings as in many tourist snapshots. My husband and his friend (1992) chose a big Budda Statue as a backgound in Taiwan (Fiqure 6). Brigitte, a librarian of the Danish School of Journalism and I (1996) were standing in front of a traditional house made of straw at Arhus natural museum in Denmark (Fiqure 7). My sister in-law with her niece (1998) at the Red Square in Moscow (Fiqure 8). The Mongolians have a proverb saying that “ It is better to see once than to hear a thousand times”. Usually we take photographs not only to keep for ourselves but also to show others and to prove of what we have seeing or where we have been to. When we travel abroad, we try to include famous constructions or buildings as background settings. Since my country is landlocked and it does not have exit to ocean, to see ocean or sea was always my dream. Therefore, I take pictures if I go to see big waters. And I have two pictures taken on the bank of sea. But water is not an attractive background for people seeing those photos. That is why, I explain “This is a photo made on the bank of Northern Sea with Brigitte” or “This is Nurgul, a Mongolian journalist and I in front of the Japan Sea”. Just after that explanation people started to look carefully.

But sometimes background settings can confuse people. There are two photos to concern about that. One is made in Tokyo in 1998. But the appearance of the Statue of Liberty behind Nurgul and I always confuse people (Fiqure 9). By that time I never went to the U.S. But some people who did not have any idea where the Statue of Liberty is situated could think I really was in New York. Another photo taken in Chicago in front of the building alike the Babel Tower gives to some people understanding that I have been to Italy (Fiqure 10). Once a friend of mine asked me “When did you go to Italy?”.

Many photographs in our family albums represent Mongolian culture which is unique by its nomadic style. Even though we live in the city at least two or three times a year we go to rural area sometimes with whole family and sometimes with foreign journalists. People in the nature is one of the main subjects of my family photographing. My husband feels like a child when he rides a horse. That is why I took his picture. But his photo taking by a Danish student specialized as a photographer is more clearly shows his happiness. From this picture we can see his full face. My daughters are interested in everything in rural area. They pictures could great series named “City girls in the rural area.” They want to try everything: to ride a horse or reindeer, to touch baby goat or to sleep in a tent. My husband and I tried to reflect their excitement in pictures. But it is impossible to reflect everything and every moment.

Because we are from family oriented culture, kinship photographs are most important assets of my family. My husband and I both from extended family. He is the third child among seven siblings and I am the third one too but among nine children. In Mongolian culture family gathering is important thing. Both my mother and my mother-in-law always want to have small kids around themselves. When my kids were small they expected to come us on every weekend. If we escaped one weekend they were offended. It became a habit for us to take my kids to their grandparents homes. Obviously, they always wanted to spend holidays together with all their children and grandchildren. Sometimes, we took pictures on the family gatherings where everybody was happy to pose. Hardest thing is to make copy available for all families on the pictures.

Photographs become part of the rituals

Photographs capture the common folkloric events in the family such as birthdays, weddings, and holidays. We do not imagine such events without people photographing or recording. This way photographs become part of the rituals they record.

Historically, in Mongolia, it was a tradition to celebrate 50-th, 60-th and 80-th anniversaries of the birthday of a person. It was not convention to celebrate children’s birthdays except a ritual for newborn child which is similar to baptizing in Christian countries. However, under the influence of Western culture Mongolian families started to celebrate their children’s birthdays. We celebrated several time s the birthdays of my kids. Only picture of my youngest daughter’s birthday celebration was kept in our family album. She was turning five years and she was like Snow White (Fiqure 11). Coming here changed the way of celebration of birthdays in our family. Here even my husband and I celebrated our birthdays.

We had series of our wedding photos. They were all in black and white. In 1987, the Wedding Palace did not take color pictures. Here we brought only one picture of our wedding. Recently, we received pictures of the wedding of the youngest sister of my husband (Fiqure 12). It is very nice and bright picture I ever seeing. Apparently, photographing of wedding at the Wedding Palace became so professional. Wedding photos are becoming art photos.

In my family album we have local or nonlocal photographs. It is different classification from Gardner’s which means “Local photographs comprised those taken within the immediate vicinity of the respondent’s home or within an adjacent community and, in either case, within a 20-mile radius of the home. If the boundary of picture-taking extended beyond this parameter, the picture was classified as nonlocal.” Concerning geographic boundaries, the pictures taken in my country are considered to be local and the pictures abroad are nonlocal. Living in America expands our family pictures. Everybody in my family is alert to take pictures wherever we go to Chicago, Jefferson or to Saint-Louis. Although photography takes time and costs money, it is becoming one of the characteristics of my family along with traveling.


Chalfen. R (1987). Snapshot Versions. 71-99

Chalfen. R. Japanese American Family Photography: A brief Report of Research on home Mode Communication in Cross-Cultural Contexts. 12-16

Gardner. S. Exploring the Family album: Social class Differences in Images of Family life. 243-250

Kotkin. A. (1978). The family Photo Album as a Form of Folklore. 4-8

Musello. C. (1977). Family Photography in Images of Information. 101-119


February, 2001

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