Visual Culture

Personal Photography and Oral History

The ways we make, distribute and display photographs on our phones, via social media and messaging apps has made them a means of communication in their own right. Many of the ways in which photography has become embedded in our lives and social networks are not new, however. Practices of photo display, exchange and the creation of highly personal objects such as photographic jewellery were well established patterns of social ritual by the second half of the 19th century.

The Living Memory Project – funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and led by the artist-producer Geoff Broadway – reminds us that photography is a prime way through which our interpersonal relationships develop and are maintained. The project ran in the Black Country borough of Sandwell and adjacent areas of Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton between 2017 and 2020. Its focus was using the family and other personal photograph collections of residents as a way of entering into a dialogue with them about their life stories, key relationships and experiences. This material then formed the basis for a wide variety of artistic and other creative commissions which drew upon these family and personal histories.

Herma Hansle and her sister Linda on a daytrip with colleagues at the Raleigh Bicycles Factory in Smethwick to Blackpool c. 1955 a few years after their arrival in the UK from Jamaica. Picture courtesy the Living Memory Project.

Since personal photography morphed from film into the digital realm, curation and sharing of family and personal photograph albums have fallen to the wayside. As a means of collating and displaying personal photographs, albums’ development was partly driven by scarcity. In the 1890s, as photographic plates began giving way to rollfilm, the possibility of owning a small, easy to use, personal camera opened up. However, the cost of film and processing meant that a casual photographer’s outings with their camera were limited to the high days and holidays. Documentation through photography was reserved for important family gatherings or key moments with friends and lovers. Less frequently, photographs recorded  time spent with work colleagues or fellow members of clubs, societies or other organisations with whom the photo’s owner spent their leisure time.

The relative scarcity of these images added to their value and significance, both for the individual or family compiling an album and the trusted few allowed to view it. Such viewings were inevitably accompanied by a commentary, the life story of the owner, and how it intertwined with the life stories of those whose photograph they possessed. This rendered the album a vivid and important documentation of the individual and their place in the social world, a vital symbol and ascertain of their self and personhood.

Embracing the importance of personal photography and albums, social and cultural historians of the recent past have begun turning to them as a rich source material. However, the albums and individual images studied tend to be alienated from their owners, having been picked up from flea markets or car boot sales, or in the sterile depersonalised environment of an archive. Whilst such photographic creations can be read and interpreted, the deep interpersonal significance of the connections between the people and places depicted is lost once out of the hands of the album’s creator or the family. There is nobody on hand explaining the stories and significance of the relationships connoted.

Recent years have seen a surge in artists and curators turning their attention to “found images”, working with old photographs of various types from different time periods to create new work. From both a historian’s and an artist’s perspective, the most interesting creative projects using personal photographs seek to capture embedded life stories and to document crucial, formative relationships.

Ruth Collins, neé King, on her way to her Wedding to Conrad Collins on board her friend’s boat with her father, Will King and sister, Christine King in 1961. Picture courtesy the Living Memory Project.

Whilst teasing out strands of what the Living Memory Project project could say about everyday life and changing society in the second half of the 20th century, I spent a morning talking to Geoff Broadway about using personal photograph collections as a way into conducting oral histories. He had a sense that, for many participants, the interviews were “the first time they themselves will have told these stories… in terms of [the people, places and experiences captured in their photographs] being put together as part of their testimony.””. The stories related to him and to other interviewers could be “quite personal stuff… quite… emotional stuff ”.

Unlike many oral history projects which are conducted around an event, institution, or anniversary, the histories evoked by people talking through their photo albums encompassed entire lives and participants’ connections to the people that have been closest to them. Geoff acknowledged that the primary purpose of the project was to create public facing content like a book, online materials, exhibitions, and raw material inspiring artists and other cultural practitioners. He constantly asked himself “Are they really going to want to use this in a story?”

This awareness that participants would want control over what was eventually published fed into the project’s working practices. According to Geoff, it took three or four days to edit each person’s testimony. Aspects of the story were removed or clarified for various reasons. Often this was because there’s “a lot of shame in some of these stories”, or because other people were very easily recognisable in these testimonies.

Gladys Willets with work colleagues at Billinghams in the 1960s. Picture courtesy the Living Memory Project.

This means any publicly accessible or displayed versions of a participant’s story were forged through what Geoff calls a “negotiation about what can be shared and what can be left out”. In every case an unedited transcript of the conversation was retained and will be deposited with the local archive service. Each participant chose which of their personal photographs they would like displayed and in what context. “Getting the photographs right” is another intricate negotiation.

Geoff tells me he has his “own aesthetic sense of what makes a really interesting and fascinating rich photograph… but it’s different from their perspective”. Participants sometimes asked him to choose for them. For Geoff, that defeats the object. He wants  “the images which are the most poignant and resonant from their lives to tell a story”, not those that “look really great in terms of the sociological perspective or as photographs”.

At the end of the process this textual personal testimony is brought together with the person’s photographs, which anchored the discussion. It creates a synoptic overview of the situation and experiences that forged and tempered the participant’s life.

At heart, the inherently narrative and oral function of personal photography collections make them – in addition to being a powerful source themselves ­– a natural prompt to discussions about the owner’s life and their sense of their place in the world . The Living Memory Project, through its website, book and other creative outputs, shows how oral histories collected by exploring  personal photographs can be an incredible means for understanding and communicating the history of everyday life.

You can learn more about the Living Memory Project on its website.

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