Get Out Your Photographs!

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Family photographs have long played an important role in accessing the past—and now an innovative web-based multi-media project has started archiving thousands of African-American family photos in an attempt to explore lives and history through this uniquely intimate lens.

Digital Diaspora Family Reunion is the brainchild of Thomas Allen Harris, a New York-based documentary filmmaker. He is on a campaign to encourage African Americans to share the contents of their old family albums with the world via the web.

“We’re taking these images out of attics and shoe boxes and making them part of the public record,” says Harris, “so we can assemble a more complete idea of African-American life as well as American life in general.” Until recently, says Harris, the work of both professional and amateur African-American photographers has rarely been preserved and interpreted by archives, museums, historical societies, and similar repositories.

The project evolved out of the documentary film Through A Lens Darkly, which Harris is producing about professional African-American photographers. The material inspired Harris to push out and explore broader themes about how photography illuminates the African-American experience. The web provided an ideal vehicle to do this.

“New media outlets are a way for people to insert their own stories into the record,” he says. Once Digital Diaspora Family Reunion goes live in September, individuals will not only be able to upload their family photos to a central archive, but they’ll also have the opportunity to explore other family stories, make comments, add information, and compare experiences. The project taps into a growing trend generically called Web 2.0, which encourages collective filmmaking and the sharing of information among participants, or what’s called “user-generated content” in the lexicon of the web. “I see the internet not just a source of entertainment but also as an educational tool. With a project like this it makes it easy for people to take a self guided tour to learn more about what African-American life was really like.”

Harris’s project has hit the road with an “Antiques Roadshow”-style format to gather material. At the first event in Atlanta 60 people came bearing hundreds of photos. For years one man had puzzled over the military insignia worn by an ancestor in a family photo; another participant identified them for him. Harris hopes that these sorts of intersections will happen thousands of times once the web site goes live.

For Bernice Alexander Bennett, a Digital Diaspora Family Reunion event at the SilverDocs documentary film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, this summer, was an eye-opening experience in the power of sharing images. As she projected her family photos from 19th-century New Orleans on a large screen, she realized that the audience was genuinely moved by her family history. “You have the photos, but until you share them they’re just inanimate objects,” says Bennett. “I really hope this project will inspire people to pull out their pictures and learn more about their ancestors.”

For Harris, one of the most surprising discoveries has been the sheer volume of African-American family images fromthe earliest years of photography, including daguerreotypes and tintypes dating to the 1850s and 1860s. Photos from the Reconstruction Era reveal evidence of interracial communities that flourished briefly but were later stamped out by Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. According to Harris, such family photos document many moments in African-American history that have been lost or overlooked.