She didn't find much multiculturalism in Canada's official archives — so she made her own

Artist Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn is inviting immigrants and their families to bring their photo albums to be digitized and added to a community archive.

Artist Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn is inviting immigrants to make a community archive from their family photos

An image from The Making of an Archive. (Wing-Yee Tong)

If Canada is truly multicultural, why are images of the immigrant experience missing from our official archives? When Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn searched through the records at the National Film Board, the CBC, and Libraries and Archives Canada, she saw a striking lack of diversity in the images she found.

"To my great disappointment, it was really difficult to find forms of representation, but more importantly to see how multiculturalism could have changed over time," she says.

The experience was part of the impetus behind Hoàng Nguyễn's ongoing cross-Canada project The Making of an Archive. The project takes a step forward this month in Vancouver and Richmond, where immigrants and their families are invited to bring their family albums to be digitized and added to Hoàng Nguyễn's community archive.

An image from The Making of an Archive. (Casey Wei)

The idea for the project was also sparked by Hoàng Nguyễn's discovery of an old photo album belonging to her father, who immigrated to Canada from Vietnam in the 1970s. She was moved by the images she saw of her father as a young man — organizing potluck dinners, going camping with friends and engaging in political activities.

"I saw images of him from the mid-70s, active with his student association, organizing and protesting in front of the parliament and saw him not only as the model minority but really as a citizen with political agency occupying the public sphere," she says.

As the first country in the world to officially declare itself multicultural, says Hoàng Nguyễn, Canada should be doing a better job of recording the immigrant experience and the various waves of migration that shape our nation's identity. Family photos, she says, offer an intimate window into the lives of newcomers.

An image from The Making of An Archive. (Maiko Tanaka)

"Typically people of colour that are coming to Canada have these photographs at home in the attic, in their cupboards, in the garage or wardrobe collecting dust," she says. "I see those as historical documents that capture a particular moment of coming to a new country and how they deal with their daily life."

Hoàng Nguyễn, who grew up in Montreal and currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden, began the project in 2014 with several digitization sessions in Toronto in collaboration with Gendai Gallery. Donors bring their family albums to have them scanned and are interviewed about the images to capture their context. They keep the original versions and also get copies of the scans.

Histories of migration also come with a lot of histories of trauma as well. People coming from places of war or places of political instability, their stories are more difficult — and there's a sense that I need to be careful in how I'm receiving and accepting these images.- Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, artist

Hoàng Nguyễn hopes the act of digitizing will bring new life to people's old family snapshots.

"They'll have JPEGs now, so they're able to share with their relatives and friends again and be able to revisit their histories and reactivate the materials that they have," she says.

The project also aims to create a more complex image of multiculturalism in Canada. With other scholars and archivists — such as the Royal Ontario Museum — developing an interest in family photography, Hoàng Nguyễn says, a richer and more complex picture of the country is coming to light.

An image from The Making of an Archive. (Leila Meshgini)

Sometimes that picture has dark undertones. Family dinners, schoolchildren and community events are the subjects of many of the photos Hoàng Nguyễn has collected so far, but some belong to people who had fled conflict or extreme poverty.

"Histories of migration also come with a lot of histories of trauma as well," she says. "People coming from places of war or places of political instability, their stories are more difficult — and there's a sense that I need to be careful in how I'm receiving and accepting these images." 

The Making of An Archive is a multi-layered, ongoing project that includes a planned book of photos and essays to be published in the spring through grunt gallery and released in conjunction with an exhibition about social movements at the Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver.

An image from The Making of an Archive. (Marilyn Hon Jung)

The digitization project might even go on the road in a kitted out campervan that Hoàng Nguyễn developed as part of a project in Sweden.

"One day I'm hoping to be able to bring the mobile unit to Canada and do a coast-to-coast road trip," she says.

Being entrusted with people's family photos feels like a privilege.

"I feel very humbled and honoured that people want to share their stories with me," she says. "It feels that I'm having a peek into history — some sort of portal into the past and hearing past histories that you don't really normally hear or access. It's a special place to be."

Photo digitization sessions are scheduled in Vancouver at the Carnegie Community Centre on Tuesday, October 17 and in Richmond at the Richmond Art Gallery on October 21 and 22. You can find out more here.

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