Have you ever wandered through an antique mall and found a card rack filled with someone's old photographs? Maybe you've been in a themed restaurant and saw old photographs of someone's family up on the walls?
I always feel slightly saddened to see these abandoned, anonymous stories. The moment the shutter clicked was important to someone for some reason. What was it?
We are denied the story - the importance - of that moment.
Does our art contribute to history? We'll explore the question in this post.
...are from an album that belonged to my great-uncle Charlie. We know the photos document his time working with the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938, during Roosevelt's New Deal initiative. Participants were paid $30.00 per month; $25.00 of those dollars were required to be sent home to family members.
We know Uncle Charlie was in Company 2503, Ballantine Montana, building a dam. The ONLY REASON we know this is a single postcard in the album. It was sent to Uncle Charlie from a fellow CCC'er.
The dam project was the Anita Dam and Reservoir. Coincidentally, my sister is named Anita and we don't know the origin of her name. Could it be...?
Family context in history
I have written previously of Uncle John (Charlie's brother). At age 16, John went to Cuba to train race horses. Cuba! Sixteen! Cuba is a long distance - geographically and socially - from Wilmington, Ohio!
Previously, I held ideas about the "romance" of going to Cuba at age 16. Who lets their sixteen year old son travel to an exotic, foreign country to live and work? Alone?
But suddenly, with contemplation of these photos from Uncle Charlie's time with the CCC, I wonder...did Uncle John go work in Cuba to send money back home? Was training race horses John's version of the CCC?
Did the Great Depression have such a devastating impact on families that teenage boys left home to find work and support their families? Obviously, yes.
Would I have made this connection without these photos? Probably not.
The wearing of the time
In some photos, Uncle Charlie appears baby-faced, maybe only 14 or 15 years of age. In others, he looks to be the older man I knew while growing up. Was this "aging" an effect of his time in service? Don't know...because there are no dates with the photos.
While the official age limit started at 17 years, there are far too many photos in Charlie's collection of young boys who look no older than 14 or 15. Was there a "secret way" for younger boys to enter into service?
And some of those men appear to be much older than twenty-eight.
Most of the men, and especially the young boys are thin, with ribs and sinews exposed when they are shirtless. Tired...very tired. In most pictures, everyone looks very tired.
Contributing to the official history can be difficult
There are organizations committed to documenting and preserving the works of the CCC and the New Deal. Indeed, my sister investigated donating Charlie's photos to one such organization. However, the submission details are quite onerous. For example, the organization wants to know who holds the copyright on the photos? We have no idea who holds copyright to the photos. Did Uncle Charlie take these? a friend? a photographer for the WPA (Works Progress Administration)?
And we certainly don't have any of the names of people in the photos.
Uncle Charlie probably thought what all of us think when we have photos made, "This is just for me, to remember my time/experience here. I'll remember all these names, these people, these places."
We forget that history is made from the collective, cumulative stories and experiences of individuals. Therefore, we don't think to document the who, what, why, when, where of our photographed moments.
Our photographs document our singular experience at one given moment. We don't stop and think that THIS moment has bearing on future generations, future stories, future structure, future society.
(Be honest, how many times have you been saved from grievous fashion errors by remembering photos from the 1980's? What will future generations learn from all those "selfies"?)
Happy Campers? History is interpreted through bias
Here's another reason to annotate your photographs...researcher bias. There is the maxim that "history is written by the victors." It is just as valid to say, "history is interpreted through the bias of the researcher."
One researcher has written the number of smiling photographs from the years of the New Deal indicates people trusted the government to take care of them. WHAT???
Maybe all those smiling photographs were taken by WPA photographers for posterity. And wouldn't you want your program to look successful? Surely, smiling people would indicate a smashing success - without any hardship.
Uncle Charlie did speak of the miserable conditions of the barracks. They baked in the summer and froze in the winter. The work was back breaking, the food tolerable and the Army commanders were tough. So tough, that he spoke of feeling as if they were "prisoners".
There are mighty few pictures of smiling CCC'ers in Charlie's collection.
Your Digital Files
If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a proponent of printing your photos. (You can read my Print Manifesto here.)
One reason is we just don't know the lifespan of a USB drive filled with images. Who knows what the preferred method of saving and accessing digital files will be seventy-eight years in the future? (Remember floppy disks? Zip drives?)
Odds are great that anything on a durable substrate, such as paper, will still be accessible in the future. Don't forget, we can read cuneiform writing on stone tablets from the 4th millenium BCE. (Cave paintings, anyone?)
If your images and the corresponding stories are important enough to immortalize in a digital file, they are important enough to annotate.
If you must use digital storage - on the off-chance that USB drives will still be usable - label all your images. Future generations will want to know dates, places, people, stories behind the images.
Future generations deserve to know the stories that developed their family and social structures. They deserve to know all those things that brought them to their (future) present moment..
- the stories,
- the lives,
- the moments,
- the changes,
- the triumphs,
- the tragedies,
- the choices.
Your printed photographs will provide the visual structure of what life was like during our present days. Your annotations will provide the stories about the impact and the meaning of living in our present time. Your photographs and your stories will provide the context and the counter-claims to a history written by others.
Our art strengthens family stories, one image at a time. Our art builds history, one image at a time. Our art documents history, one image at a time. Our art records our culture, our society, one image at a time.
So, you see, history is in your hands.
Expect the best. Anything else is an adventure.
Feel free to share far and wide. I welcome your comments in the section below, or over on the Facebook page.
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******You can find a list of WPA/CCC projects here.*******