The Limited Family Archive

open photo album containing one black and white photograph and the others torn out

The weight of discourse presenting the homogenous familial experience is compelling, which provide plenty of reasons to buy into the discussion that family photographs follow the same conventions and codes, and to a certain extent they do. For example, photographs of new children, of marriage, and holidays fill the pages of the family album, or exist in collections online and in Smart Phones. These are the edited highlights showing the idealistic and very best moments. These are the photographs that we hope best to represent us and our very version of the family to others – a happy family, a happy home. Yet, these ‘happy’ photographs lack nuance, they are missing the downtimes that inevitably follow the ideal ones. Times that all families go through and what makes them better for it. Why shouldn’t all of these lived experiences that shape well rounded individuals be part of the family album?

In complete contrast this common practice, Erik Kessels makes a point of photographing his children when they fall – a rite of passage for any child. They learn from these experiences and Kessels is creating an archive that rails against the limitations of homogenous family albums to create something that is closer to the reality of family life – that sometimes you must console the child that scrapes their knee. The reaction to the series was in response to the way that we are primed to view photographs of children and as Kessels points out: “I believe these shocked responses have to do with the fact that we’ve been taught to interpret pictures in one very particular way. A setting sun is always romantic and a kid with a bloody nose has of course been the victim of some adult predator.” (2016).

It is not new to show the grim reality and spectrum of life. In Victorian England for example, it was commonplace to photograph loved ones who had passed away as way of commemorating them and retaining them in life. However, death was a bigger part of life for people during this period, as noted by Bethan Bell:Victorian life was suffused with death. Epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus and cholera scarred the country, and from 1861 the bereaved Queen made mourning fashionable.’ (2016)

Photographers and artists use the family archive as a means of exploring the commonality of the familial experience. Photographers and artists also construct their own responses to the family archive by creating new works that focus on their own family members and then offer the outcomes as part of a shared experience for all of us. However, just as the family photograph is a cropped, edited, selected highlight of the ideal – a limited presentation of what the family experience is. Photography art and writing about the archive therefore could be considered limited is what they actually present back to an audience and should be acknowledged as such. Despite the shared nature of the family album – the homogenous characteristics of the photographs within them – they are not actually the same. There are different dynamics, politics, and unique cultural signifiers that are there, even when the photograph might portray a similar scene.

In the UK, all school children wear a uniform. The argument centres around the way that a uniform offers conformity and also an anonymity across the socio-economic spectrum. Those least likely to be able to afford the latest trend of fashion would be spared the embarrassment of being singled out to peers for being poorer than them, a symptom of the engrained class-structure of British society. However, even amongst such conformity it is still possible to notice the child with the ill-fitting and faded school jumper handed down from older siblings, which have the frayed cuffs at the end of a term as the uniform is nursed through the entire year before needing a replacement. Or even, the child wearing the same uniform for an entire week because they are only able to provide with one complete set. The signs are still there, even when the code defines the conventions all must adhere. And the same can be said about the family album when two photographs of a wedding will signify differently according to their cultural demographic. Of course, this is not an issue in of itself as it is important to have the widest interpretation of a shared experience. It becomes a challenge when the responses to the familial experience are primarily those from similar backgrounds. Familial experience is shared by all but it also a gamut in which some of those experiences are not the same for all.

In Larry Sultan’s seminal book ‘Pictures from Home’ (2021) is a hugely influential document of his retired parents that also includes archive material and the narrative of Sultan and his parents building a visual library of images that aim to give an insight to the familial experience. What is striking about the photographs, especially to someone who is not from the US is that they are like watching a hyperreal movie, yet we are used to these images because of the way that US visual culture has been served. Sultan’s images might be gazed upon as part of an American dream Idealised incarnate. Some of the photographs are known feel that I know already, intimately consumed through cultural references I have seen on film and TV. One might know for example, what the feel of Sultan’s deep pile green carpet is like in all its synthetic glory, I just about remember the eighties. The reality of it is however, at the same time, I have no idea of the familial experiences being presented by Sultan because they are also deeply rooted in the middle-class experience of Affluent Americans.

How do those from poorer background limited access to the same materials create their own record and maintain an archive on the same level. My own and indeed my family demographic would be deemed ‘working class’ in the UK. I have a family archive too. It has the common photographs from birthdays, weddings, holidays, parties. The photographs would be recognisable as vernacular and of the family album. The archive, however, is visibly old, not a meticulous set of objects and the albums are poor quality and broken. The objects that contain the archive are significant as materials for properly archiving photography are expensive. Processing film and printing photographs are expensive also, even at the height of ubiquity of film photographic practice. Even now a smart phone with a high capacity for storage is expensive, as is the additional cost of cloud-based memory. This creates a disparity of record between demographics where the value of one might be deemed higher because of the volume and condition of it.

For artists, even the most emotive pain can become part of their practice, which is missed by the majority engaged in the conventions of familial archiving. The full spectrum of experience that we have as humans, takes place whether it is photographed or not. It is important to view family photographs and family albums with this in mind for a better understanding of what those images represent. The signs are evident in these photographs through the material presentation of the image, which might be in physical or digital form. Even if there is not the need to record these other experiences, they are still evident in the archive.


Bell, Bethan. 2016. Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photography. June 5. Accessed August 31, 2022.

Kessels, Erik. 2016. My Family. Accessed August 31, 2022.

Sultan, Larry. 2021. Pictures from Home. Second Printing. London: Mack.

FMP Sequences

As I am making a book project, I am considering the number of images that I should include to properly realise my narrative. Looking at the photobooks of others, I have seen a great variety in the number of photographs present and suggests to me that this should always be based on the subject and the way that they are flowing together. For example, two quite different examples of Rinko Kawauchi’s ‘Illuminance’ (2011) and Pieter Hugo’s ‘kin’ (2015) both contain 80 images, presented very differently.

Figure 1: Rinko Kawauchi (2011) Double Page Spread from ‘Illuminance’
Figure 2: Rinko Kawauchi (2011) Double Page Spread from ‘Illuminance’

Kawauchi’s practice explore elements of beauty contained within the banal elements of everyday life and the design of her books actively reflects this, which build on one another to create this sense of luminescence. Nearly all of the book is presented as uncut pages of square diptych’s (Fig: 1&2). 80 images in this format with the occasional single page to break up the pacing becomes experiential upon interacting with it.

Figure 3: Pieter Hugo (2015) Double Page Spread from ‘Kin’

Hugo uses differing sized pages, which overlap and create interesting collages of people, environment, and object (Fig: 3). Kin has the same number of images as Kawauchi’s book but feels very different because of the sheer variety of content. Hugo’s book is formed from a long-term project which considers the problematic history of his home, South Africa. The overlapping pages add to this sense of how nuanced and layered everything is once you begin to look closely at it.

Both these books function well in relaying their story to the reader, even within the high number of images that they include. During a discussion with Bryan Schutmaat and Matthew Genitempo, they discussed the photo book and suggested that books with 70 plus images rarely communicate effectively. Schutmaat, who has produced some highly successful books of his own and also run Trespasser Publishing with Genitempo, advocate for a tighter edit of around 40 photographs making for a much more effective narrative (Schutmaat & Genitempo, 2021).

My image sequences

Figure 4: Phil Hill (August, 2021) Two image ‘micro sequence’ from ‘Unreliable Narrator.’ Bullet Casings [Left] and cut images from the Spanish Holiday [Right].

For my project, 40 images is actually a good number to work with. My Unreliable narrator narrative needs to include ambiguity and mystery. It should also consider adding misdirection as a tool to lead the reader through the story but also hint at connections between images that may not necessarily exist. Elements of the sequence do also relate to the story that I wrote. For example, I make reference to the Spanish holiday where everything changed after (Hill, 2021), so I added another cut image from this holiday that was in the archive. I also juxtaposed this image with some discarded bullet casings (Fig: 4), which my brother found metal detecting. The suggestion that this is a kind of smoking gun piece of evidence by placing them together. It is also important to note that the background is different to the blue of the other still life images, to create a link to that change and pace in the written story. This is also after considering the idea of Barthes ‘Micro-Sequences’ within the larger narrative (1977, p. 103).

Effectively, I have designed a narrative presenting a number of options for the reader to form conclusions based on their own inherent bias from the evidential value of the photographed objects and also any of the characters within the sequence that a reader may make connections. Some of which is referenced in the text, and other, which are purposefully not referred to at all although still completely relevant to the project. This is so that the text and images don’t become illustrative of each other. As pointed out by Geoff Dyer this can lead to reducing the narrative potential of either element (2021). Therefore, some of the images are working with the text to reveal elements of the unreliable narration and others are there to suggest that everything is still unreliable and ambiguous enough to create a level of intrigue

Figure 5: Phil Hill (August, 2021) Two Garden Incinerators used to destroy documents
Figure 6: Phil Hill (August, 2021) Shredded Paper in bag and Water Fountain image pasted to window sequence.

I have been very much interested in the mystery, which is built through the image sequence, I feel that I have managed to achieve this here. For example, I included both images of the incinerators (Fig: 5), which feels quite surreal followed by the bag of shredded paper on the next page (Fig: 6). I enjoy the juxtaposition of the bag of paper next to the image of the water fountain placed in the window (Fig: 6) to connect it to the belief system that my family hold. Aesthetically they connect through the materials of the printing paper in different states. I had more images of the fountain however felt that with the placement of both incinerators, it would be better to hint at the superstition aspect of my parents’ beliefs, especially as my project developed. The four images I think work well as another micro sequence in the way that they play with the idea of materials and evidence (shredded paper), fuel for the fire (incinerators), and the image of water to close.

Dear Sarah & Derick [sic],

Thought of you two when I picked this card out – hoping of course this will never happen to you. Hope everything is ok. Give my Brucey a kiss. Weather isn’t too special here worse luck never mind.

Sarah can you tell the man that calls around for Simon’s money that he hasn’t been very well and that the doctor advised him to take a holiday with us. You can tell him that Simon caught whooping cough badly and it was the last minute he had to go with us – on doctors orders. Can you tell him that­. Thanks.

Much Love Mum xxx

Figure 7: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Postcard from Archive and transcribed message [right]

I have intentionally added images of objects from the archive to build this mystery. The postcard for example has always intrigued me with its message that feels like it’s trying to convince someone over the normal use for a postcard to talk about the weather, the food, and location whilst on holiday where it begins. The message on this one is suggestive of something else happening in the background (Fig: 7)

I have sought the opinion of others to support my edit, my peers have been really valuable in supporting the sequencing of the work. One of my Peers, Tim Stubbs-Hughes said:

Your FMP is so detailed and you can clearly feel and see the profound journey you have been on, from the initial direction you started with – I can remember back in Feb you talking about and then the discoveries on the way. The photography and text is personal and beautiful. But what really lifts everything is the attention to detail. Not only in the work but how you are intending to present it, either in its book or exhibition format. Great great work.

(Stubbs-Hughes, 2021)

Followed by Ross Trevail, who suggested that I include my story as it is presented as the intended for the publication:

the images all look really good. Love the new portraits I hadn’t seen before. The only thing I wondered was whether spreading out the Latchkey Kids essay over a few more pages. I found it a lot to look at when over 2 columns. Maybe the writing on the book dummies could be spread over a couple more pages as well to give it a bit of room. It’s great though, really strong work.

(Trevail, 2021).

Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translation edition ed. London: Fontana.

Dyer, G., 2021. Coversation with Geoff Dyer – Falmouth Flexible [Interview] (8 July 2021).

Hill, P., 2021. The Latchkey Kids. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 24 July 2021].

Hugo, P., 2015. Kin. 1 ed. New York: Aperture.

Kawauchi, R., 2011. Illuminance. 1 ed. New York: Aperture.

Schutmaat, B. & Genitempo, M., 2021. A Small Voice, Conversations with Photographers: 155 – Matthew Genitempo & Bryan Schutmaat [Interview] (26 May 2021).

Stubbs-Hughes, T., 2021. Whatsapp Direct Message. [Online]

Trevail, R., 2021. Whatsapp Direct Message. [Online]

Submitting II

As I move towards the end of the MA, I am considering the amount of submissions that I have made versus the return on many of these. I am considering the important of being able to talk with professionals after the MA is over, especially as I move to get my project published. I have already made an inquiry to Gem Fletcher who is well regraded for her professional mentorship and have suggested that I can arrange an initial meeting in the autumn, ideally before the launch of the Four Corners exhibition to gain insight into how to maximise this opportunity. I have also applied to be a part of the next round of ‘East Meets West’ Masterclasses by Format Festival (Fig: 1), which I feel would be beneficial to continue to develop my practice. I am considering carefully, which opportunities that I apply for as in variably they are pay to play and it will be important to ensure value.

Figure 1: Format Festival (2021) East Meets West Master Class Program

One area that I am keen to continue developing is the way that I write about my work. I feel confident now writing academically, and also as part of the process of my practical work. Where I feel there is areas to improve is the short synopsis that supports my projects acceptance into exhibitions, festivals and other opportunities. For example, I applied for a number of Photo Festivals over the year, with little success. Although, Photo Australia 2022 did take the time to comment that they were impressed with my practice (McCleary, 2021) there is clearly some work to do in order to get my work across the line.

Figure 2: Royal Photographic Society (2021) Joan Wakelin Bursary

Considering my next steps, I also made an application to the Joan Wakelin Bursary and pitched a project idea that encompasses much of the research and practice that I have done over the past two years (Fig: 2). This will be considering the community of where I am from and where my family still live, considering the ways that they are finding it ever more difficult to live there.

As a subscriber to the British Journal of Photography, I have submitted my project to the International Photography Award and will also be able to submit a series of portraits for the Portrait of Britain Awards.

Figure 3: Rake Collective (2021) Open Call

I have also recently applied to the RAKE Community 2021: Practitioners-in-Residence! opportunity (Fig: 3), which is seeking persons to complete a month research activity and engagement online through their social media platforms and also in collaboration with other participants. I feel that this would be a good opportunity to continue my exploration into the cut photograph that started my FMP project.


McCleary, B., 2021. Photo 2022 Open Call. [Email]

Narrative Sequences

Narrative has always been a key element of my project. The way that the story is told influences how it is going to be read. As Barthes acutely points out when he breaks down what the narrative is: “a hierarchy of instances” (1977: 87), therefore to understand a narrative is not to merely follow the unfolding story (Effectively creating a chronological order of events with my images). It is also to recognise the construction of all of the various elements to create meaning and present the different levels towards its conclusion.

Figure 1: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Unreliable Narrator – Archive Database spread sheet showing image captions

At the start of the project, I was approaching it in a way that would focus on documenting the evidence that I was discovering. This was clearly a disparate approach as I did not really know what I had in front of me. In order to construct my story, it was important to collect everything together. This came with some of its own challenges in the sense that my catalogue of objects and images, especially from the archive, were captioned in a very descriptive way meaning that I was eroding the ambiguity of the image and the way that it might be individually read (Fig: 1).

Figure 2: Phil Hill (June, 2021) Sequencing collected quotes
Figure 3: Phil Hill (June, 2021) Sequencing collected quotes

However, once I was in the position to know much more about the story I was going to be telling, I was able to reflect on the captions and create something that was personal to the story but ambiguous enough to allow the reader to form their own connections with the work. I worked to edit the captions from the descriptive into the emotive and to be part of the story. I had been collecting quotes from my family as I had been photographing them and was planning to add these within the sequence of the work however, iterations of this edit were becoming confused and it was felt that I need to define the voice of each element, which solidified the decision to lose the descriptive caption (Fig: 2&3). From here, I felt that I could use the quotes as captions but this was still locking down the images with the text and forcing readings of it that should remain open to interpretation.

The more I began to consider ways that I could sequence the images, the more I felt it important to do the same with the quotes too. Although, I have only used a few in the final sequence it was fundamental to the understanding of my narrative that I also consider the same rules for the text. Referring to Barthes narrative analysis, he suggests that each element becomes a ‘micro-sequence’ (p. 103) which I discussed earlier (Fig: 4), forming the larger narrative and this gives me the framework to consider the text and the image are also sequences in their own right before attempting to put them together.

Figure 4: Phil Hill (July, 2021) Book development post discussing the idea of the micro sequence

Within the body of the book, the only text will be the title of ‘Unreliable Narrator’ and the following quotes:

  • Why do you keep a photograph that wounds so deeply?
  • You have to realise that I live a rather strange life at the moment, which one day might change.
  • This… is not going to trouble me anymore.

These create one of the micro-sequences, which constructs the whole narrative. Another one being the incidental object of the reproduced negative that I discussed in the book update post (Fig: 4) and also the themselves.

Figure 5: Phil Hill (August, 2021) Unreliable Narrator V7 digital dummy showing ‘The Latchkey Kids’ text at the end of the sequence.

I also reflected on the feedback that I was receiving about the project, which suggested much of the intrigue from the project was from the way that I was talking about the images. I wanted to create an account of my journey of discovery and also add in some personal reflections so wrote a short story. However, I didn’t want the work to become solely about my written text so it has been placed at the end of the work (Fig: 5). This is so that the reader can view the work with little to contextualise it in the first instance. The idea is that a reader’s own bias and way of interpreting the world informs the way that the narrative is understood. After reading the short story, they can then return to the images and see additional connections between the images, or ‘Easter eggs’ that may not have happened on the initial reading. This then I with the understanding that the story is my interpretation of the narrative and could very well be something else entirely if another person wrote it.

As Barthes points out: “A sequence is a logical succession of nuclei bound together by a relation of solidarity” (1977: 101), which is how I have attempted to structure my sequence for this project in the smaller elements that come together.

The question of the Unreliable Narrator remains. Who is the Unreliable Narrator? This depends on the interpretation of the narrative but I consider the way that individuals might draw conclusive ideas of what they think is happening within the sequence of images creates the idea that we are all unreliable especially if after reading the short story, these conclusions might be unfounded.

I considered photography an unreliable narrator, which it still relevant. The camera itself could even be the unreliable narrator. The camera that recorded the image which was then cut, recorded that image in its complete rectangle frame. It has the knowledge of what was in the part of the frame that the audience is unable to know. If the camera could be considered as a form or narrator, merely retelling a story to an audience through visual means then we can consider the impartiality of this narration. Is it impartial? James Wood suggests that within literature omniscience is impossible as the narrative will start to bend around a character, crucially: “wants to merge with that character to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking” (2019, p. 16). How this is relevant to the camera as narrator is the way that its narration would ultimately be impacted by the person using the tool firstly, and then by the way that it records the objects/persons/’characters’ – “Omnicient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems” (p. 15).

Photographs are constructions in composition and framing, yet can be perceived as record and objective. The cut photograph interrupts this by cropping the photograph further, albeit abruptly. This is effectively no different from the act of framing when the photograph was taken, the key difference is the space in time between the initial framing and the subsequent edit of the photograph. These two points form another one of Barthes micro-sequences: “the sequence opens when one of its terms has solidarity antecedent and closes when another of its terms has no consequent” (1977: 101), which for the reader is where the absence of the photograph causes the questions of what happened to be raised. In Barthes analysis of the narrative there are functions that serve the broader narrative. For example, in the case of the family photograph, the act of taking it serves the function of the collective family record and is something that is universally understood. It’s defacement then impacts this understanding


Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translation edition ed. London: Fontana.

Wood, J., 2019. How Fiction Works. Revised Edition ed. London: Vintage.