On Family

I have become quite interested in why you would choose to keep an image that has been abruptly ‘edited’ and continue to display such an image within the context of the family album.

These images have been referred to by Quetzal Maucci as a ‘Manual Intervention Photograph’ (MIP) in that they have been visibly changed by the act of cutting, drawing, scratching, tearing etc. Is this some kind of Freudian ‘Death Drive’ of self-destruction that seeks to cause confrontation with those removed from the image? (Derrida, 1995, p. 14). 

Liz Wells notes: “The photographs we keep for ourselves are treasured less for their quality than for their context, and for the part they play in confirming and challenging the identity and history of their users” (2004, p. 117). This is a way of understanding the MIP as a way of shaping the narrative, informing the identity of the person making these forms of ‘edits’ to photographs – a form of self-appointed control of self-identity over the person or persons within the photograph. To its most extreme, an MIP highlights the violence and trauma that exists outside of the frame and represents it through the physicality of the photograph. The political hierarchy of the family album having been irrevocably disrupted. The MIP brings this to the forefront of the image reading in a very overt way, even if there are no answers for this intervention, the emotive act of distressing the image is laid bare.

Yet, even if the image had not been distressed, the influence and pressure of a situation outside of the frame still remains, as Wells goes on to remind us: “Personal pictures are deeply unreliable, but that is where their interest lies” (p. 118). MIPs are even a paradox of Well’s statement: on the one hand they are relatively more reliable, providing some additional information to a situation and context existent around them. However, they are still not reliable enough for anyone unaware or outside of this to understand, leading to additional questions, possibly more than if the image was merely left as is. Family photographs are read as innocuous, generic and harmless for most, and the inclusion of an MIP within this context brings these benign pleasantries to a crashing halt. As Marianne Hirsch discusses images left after the holocaust: “And it is precisely the utter conventionality of the domestic family picture that makes it impossible to comprehend how the person in the picture was, or could have been, annihilated. In both cases, the viewer fills in what the picture leaves out: the horror of looking is not necessarily in the image but the story the viewer provides to fill in what has been omitted” (1997, p. 21). A photograph on its own is never enough to grasp the reality of what is happening outside the frame. However, by manually intervening with the photograph any benign reading of the it is irrevocably interrupted.

Questions raised by MIPs, maybe uncomfortable ones. Would it not be better to have just removed the whole image from the album instead? This could depend on the expected audience for the album. When I look at the MIP images in my parents archive, I wonder who the person cut from the image is, however, my parents already know. Personal photography is rarely consumed or even understood outside of the nuclear family. Within, it is offered as a ‘greatest hits’ collection of idealised moments curated from, for example, holidays and events that bring them together. From this, we can consider the family as a form of ‘state’ aiming to provide an ‘official’ narrative to look back and be reminded of the good times. Family albums are not meant for anyone outside of it and the difficulty in decoding and trying understand nuances of an individual family structure is the reason why Barthes chooses not to show us the image of his mother – only he can appreciate the complexities of this image and its meaning to him (Hirsch, 1997, p. 2). It could then be assumed that the inclusion of a MIP is there as a reminder to the person that made the intervention and for no one else to see it.

But why? What value is there in keeping the image have over removing it fully? Potentially, there are elements of Identity, power and control at play here. Without knowing the reasons for the MIP, I can only speculate[i] however, it is quite a powerful thing to physically remove someone from the record, as seen in photographs of the soviet era (Fig: 1), and maybe it is the only meaningful way that this can be enacted when unable to do so in real life. The disrupted photograph becomes the manifestation of a form of control and power for the powerless. Michel Foucault argues that the only real power is sovereign power (Koopman, 2017) and sovereignty over one’s own archive of personal and family photography is key to understand why such a photograph would continue to exist within it. You have the complete power to do with what you will with the images that you possess and in private to take satisfaction that you have enacted this control.

Figure 1: Getty (1930s) Nikolai Yezhov, pictured right of Stalin, was later removed from this photograph at the Moscow Canal.

Post memory
Figure 2: Unknown (1970s) Scan of family album including manual Intervention photographs

How does this translate into the way others see these images? The narrative is select and defined by a few parameters set by the archivist, or the person who puts together the album. If context and information is needed, then it is sort from the person who put the album together. When I first went through my family album, I briefly asked why there was a number of photographs with parts missing. The answer I received from my dad was that they were out of focus on that side however, on looking through the negatives I found one of the images (Fig: 2) that was being referred to, which was technically ok. This creates more questions about the images, which I intend to unpack further with both my parents.

Hirsch’s discussion of Post memory is also important to include in the evaluation of photography as an unreliable narrator. Specifically, it notes the distance of generations and history on those having the narrative relayed to them (1997, p. 22), creating opportunities for elements such as bias and personal subjectivity to enter into the narrative. Photography’s flawed position as an objective record of events also impacts this. Photography can be considered an unreliable narrator in itself by applying Wayne C. Booth use of distance (1975, p. 156), stating that a narrator [or photography in my use of the term] may be distant from authors, characters [or subjects], and even the readers own norms [considering Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ (1977, pp. 142-149)].

[i] I do intend on interviewing those who made the image in the case of my own family album


Barthes, R., 1977. Death of the Author. In: Image, Music, Text. New York: Fontana, pp. 142-149.

Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J., 1995. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Diacritics, 25(2), pp. 9-63.

Hirsch, M., 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. 2012 Reissue ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koopman, C., 2017. The power thinker. [Online] Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/why-foucaults-work-on-power-is-more-important-than-ever
[Accessed 12 March 2021].

Wells, L., 2004. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 3 ed. London: Routledge.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.