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.

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:
[Accessed 12 March 2021].

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

Starting point

What happens in the absence of memory, or if the memory is born from a one sided narrative?

This will be the start of my investigation.

As any family would, I have an archive of images in albums. These were never really displayed around the house I grew up in. If you are to visit my parents now, there are not that many images present. Even within the archive, there are no images from after the mid-nineties. There are practical reasons for this. My dad’s old Russian film camera broke about this time and he could not afford to replace it with newer digital technology. However, even where there are images present, those images of extended family ceased. This was around the time that my parents effectively stopped communicating with them – I don’t know why. There are a number of images within the albums that have been cut as well, suggesting of some kind of family rift that I was too young to understand and never really questioned when reaching adulthood (Fig: 1). Now that I have a family of my own, I am becoming interested in why this has happened and if there are inherent traits that exist as a result.

Objects are an important way of understanding a culture in the absence of first-hand deposition. And this creates a link to my exploration of the photograph as an object in previous modules. What I find intriguing about images that have been cut is the willingness to keep the object that has been so noticeably ‘edited,’ creating a new object of intrigue. The cut print in fact creates more questions about the image where I might have merely flipped past otherwise and is the very reason why I am wanting to investigate it here.  Erik Kessels acknowledges this in his series ‘My Family’, where he notes:

“So we opt for self-censorship, hoping that excluding “bad” images will somehow cause the memories themselves to evaporate. This saddens me, because reflecting on an unpleasant occurrence can give you insight and broaden your perspective. I want images that reflect life in its complexity. Sure, that sounds like a mighty demand, and likely impossible, but let’s give it a go.”

(Kessels, 2016)
Figure 2: F. Kislov (1937) Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, and Nikolai Yezhov walking along the banks of the Moscow-Volga Canal, in April, 1937
Figure 3: F. Kislov (1937) Nikolai Yezhov has been removed from the original image.

Kessels refers to the forms of propaganda that exists within the family album (Clark, 2013) and this feels confirmed within my own, where persons have been removed. There of course is a precedent in the removal of undesirables from photographs. Hannah Adrendt discussed the vulnerability of truth (Gessen, 2018), referring to the way that Trotsky had been removed from the official soviet record (Fig: 2 & 3), is there much of a difference between this and my own families removal of ‘undesireables?’ Roland Barthes contextualises this within the idea of community, noting the paradox of exclusion within it: “Perhaps there’s no such thing as a community without an integrated reject” (2012: 81) as if it is important to maintain awareness of what we reject to confirm our positioning. This is potentially the reasoning behind keeping a cut image within the album (Fig: 4) to show that control can be exacted over the undesirable, and to be reminded that they can be removed in some form.

Figure 5: Erik Kessels (2020) ‘Collection of photographs where ‘unwanted’ people got removed from. Instagram post.
Figure 6: Erik Kessels (2020) ‘Collection of photographs where ‘unwanted’ people got removed from. Instagram post.

Kessels also recently shared a series of vernacular images (Kessels, 2020), noticeable in the way that they have been cut (Fig: 5). There appears to be images in this set, which are similar to the ones that I have within my family’s archive. However, there are others in Kessels post (Fig: 6) that might be something else. It was noted during my first peer to peer session that this might in fact be due to someone cutting a print to place that part of the image into a locket, and suggests that there is a positive outcome from the editing of a print.

During the last module, I started to use constructed narratives more openly and applied traditional story telling structure to my sequencing. Within my family archive the narrative is more political through censorship. This is something that I am really keen to explore here and also utilise. My aim will be to construct a new narrative in the absence of one, or as an alternative to the ‘official’ one that has be told to me through the years. In effect, this is a question that exists in all family archive (an indeed photography) – they are deeply constructed, political and steeped in presenting a propagandised view of the family.


Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Clark, T., 2013. The Vanishing Art of the Family Photo Album. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 29 January 2020].

Gessen, M., 2018. The Photo Book That Captured How the Soviet Regime Made the Truth Disappear. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 January 2020].

Kessels, E., 2016. My Family. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 29 January 2020].

Kessels, E., 2020. Erik Kessels instagram – Collection of photographs where ‘unwanted’ people got removed from. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 28 January 2020].