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.

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.

Communities and Communication update

Figure 1: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Reflecting on the Conference presentation

Off the back of the Communities and Communication conference that I took part in April (Fig: 1), I was invited to submit my paper for their upcoming publication. I am really please that I am able to submit an academic piece of writing for a university publication as this was one of the goals of the FMP. The paper will be an extension on the presentation that I delivered, with a deadline for submission just after the FMP deadline. I will have my work cut out putting together the writing as I am required to produce a 6000 word paper.

It is giving me the opportunity to revisit in detail a lot of the research that I have been considering throughout the FMP and see new relevance for it for the FMP. In particular, I am forming discussion around the idea of Roland Barthes’ ‘Iddiorrythmy’ (2013) Susan Keller’s Community as an ongoing search between the individual and the community whole (1988), Graham Harmon’s Object Orientated Ontology (2018). I am also able to apply in greater depth the way that I am also looking at photographic memory and nostalgia.

I will be able to apply much of this thought and discussion when I come to write the Critical Review.


Barthes, R., 2013. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harmon, G., 2018. Object Orientated Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. 1st ed. London: Pelican Books.

Keller, S., 1988. The American Dream of Community: An unfinished Agenda. Sociological Forum, 3(2), pp. 167-183.

Writing Feedback

I have felt that I would like to develop my writing about photography as I have become quite interested in some of the ideas behind the reasons why I am photographing. I have taken the opportunity to submit a number of text to open calls and other competitions to see how I might develop this as part of my visual practice. Prior to the MA and when I was a freelance photographer, I would often contribute written articles to accompany my images and found that this was a useful way to present myself commercially. I found that editors and commissioners of work were more likely to hire me if I had a complete package of word and images – for the travel sector at least. This very much sits in the topics of the ‘Art and Commerce’ week as I acknowledge that the style of writing that I am pitching for are very different entities and should be approached in different ways.

After submitting to a number of these calls without much success, I replied to my rejected entry to the Source Magazine’s writing prize to see if I could get some feedback from the Editor, Richard West. For some context, my entry to the prize was about an idea that I had during the last module about how photographers aim to separate themselves from the sea of images; by drawing attention to the process of the photography in the images that they produce (Fig: 1).

Figure 1: Phil Hill (July, 2020) Link to ‘Drawing Attention to the Image’

West did see that I was aiming to write about what he referred to as the ‘presence of the photographer in the image’ (2020) however he didn’t think that the ideas I was putting across were put across in a convincing way. The idea of ‘Presence’ is clearly an area that I need to continue to investigate and read further into the topic in order to create a fully rounded argument. The examples that I used to support my points were also considered disparate, which may be a reflection of how I was trying to cram in as much information within the 700-word limit. Not a great deal of space to flesh out a convincing argument, which is completely a reflection on me as I have a tendency of dancing around a topic when I really need to be more concise (a challenge that I have found for each of the oral presentations). I was reading quite a bit into the topic and possibly needed some more time to really drill down to the fundamentals of the idea; I can see the links, yet unable to convey this to the reader, an important consideration for my writing and also my images. To better communicate the idea of drawing attention to the process, it was suggested that I might be better looking at concentrating on photographers working at a similar time, or focus on a similar subject as a better basis for comparison.

For example, West mentions that my use of Robert Frank in this regard as Source have in the past highlighted similarities to his aesthetic with that of the vernacular, and it is in fact Frank’s lens on the culture and politics of the time that is important (2020). This is a valid point, and I think that I have missed an opportunity to better explain my reasoning behind using Frank as an example in my essay. Crucially, I believe that there is an awareness that Frank has over the vernacular, which creates the separation of his work and comment on American society that it is synonymous for. Interestingly, in this week’s reading was ‘The Messy Truth’ episode on Authorship with Alex Coggin (2019) discussed the idea of how an image can be ‘unmistakeably authored,’ which is something that definitely feeds into this idea that I am trying to get across. Ultimately, the authorship that Coggin is referring to is a way that photographers apply the process and intentionally draws attention to the photograph, the photography, and the photographer creating a significance for the image. My essay, I feel was misinterpreted to be more about the photographer might use equipment, so I must work harder to ensure that my meaning is being interpreted. As West suggests, it is important to get many people to read through my work.  

Finally, West notes that my concluding paragraph could have been more concise, which is a fair point. I have started to understand that I have a tendency to not properly structure my essays and instead keen to get the ideas down onto the page in order to evolve the writing as I am typing. Potentially, in future this is something that I should treat as a draft version to be structured (Table: 1).

Definition of TermsIf you are going to utilise terminology in a particular context
Argument oneReason + Counter point
Argument twoReason + Counter point
Argument threeReason + Counter point
Table 1: Phil Hill (October, 2020) Suggested future essay structure


Coggin, A., 2019. The Messy Truth: Alex Coggin on Authorship [Interview] (May 2019).

West, R., 2020. RE: Submission: Source Writing Prize [Email] (1 October 2020).