What my mother's first photo in Canada taught me about the joy and hidden pain of immigrating
The NFB's interactive First Photo Here Project is shining a very personal light on immigrant narratives
Photographs are precious. I'm not talking about the ones you post on social media with the caption, "Felt cute, might delete later," but rather the treasured ones you have collected in handbound albums; the pictures stuffed in oversized envelopes with their negatives tucked into the back; the Polaroids with vague handwritten captions on the small white border; the four-by-six prints with orange block-letter date stamps on them.
So when I heard about the National Film Board of Canada's interactive First Photo Here — a collection of the very first photos taken by newcomers to Canada and shared with loved ones back home — I started thinking about my own mother and what her first photo might tell me about her immigration story.
The project is curated by Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker Joella Cabalu. I sent in a submission and then spoke to her about it.
Joella: "I love this photo. I love that there's a thumb in the way."
Me: "This is what most photos from my childhood look like — thumbs, crooked, someone's head not in the frame."
Joella: "It's so relatable. Where did your mom move from?"
Joella: "OK. I've never heard of that country before." (laughs)
Most people I speak to have never heard of Dominica, which leads to the inevitable follow-up question, "Do you mean the Dominican Republic?" Which, obviously, I don't. Joella, who is ethnically Filipina, says she understands my frustration and then asks me about my last name, Dechausay, which prompts a conversation about the Commonwealth and colonization. All this started from a simple photograph.
Although Joella's experience fits with the theme of the project, she's mindful not to centre the project around her family story. So I decided to explore my own as an example.
I urged my mom to send me her first photo, envisioning what lengthy conversations might unfold. But when I asked her to tell me the story behind the photo, she replied with a one-line email that read, "It's Sharon and me, and it's taken on the Toronto islands." So I called her.
Me: "Whose thumb was that?"
Mom: "It's probably Agnes, my sister. Every weekend we would go somewhere. We used to go to the islands a lot. We've been everywhere."
Me: "I didn't even know you've ever been to the islands."
Mom: "Even when my mother came to visit, I took her. At that time, that was a major place to go."
My mom arrived in Canada during the spring of 1972. As she was raised on a Caribbean island, I asked her about her first impressions of Canadian weather. She laughed, "It was almost summer, but I never knew the sun could be cold."
It struck me that my dad was not in the photo and that the child my mom was standing with was not one of my siblings. She had recently been married, but immigration policies prohibited her and my dad from coming to Canada together. For a year, they stayed apart, which was common at the time. She lived in an apartment with Agnes while she found a job, took classes and looked for a place to live. Agnes had gone through a similar experience, but with her oldest child, Sharon, the one in the photo with my mom. I was still years from being born.
This simple photograph was more than just a trip to the Toronto islands. It captured a moment in history, with family members hoping and striving to be reunited again in another country.
"You felt very excited and privileged because at that age, everyone was trying to establish themselves," my mom says. "At that time, I chose to come to Canada. So I wanted to stay, go to school and get a good job. You are here to get a better life. And then I could send for your dad and [we could] establish ourselves here."
These hidden stories are exactly what Joella is hoping to explore. "It's always the story behind the photo — which is why I was drawn to this project," she says. "It's why I always liked street photography or documentary photography because there is always more to what you see on the surface."
The challenges in curating a project this large are countless. While each newcomer's experience is unique, the ways in which that shows up in a photograph can be quite similar. For example, I was born in Toronto, but if I were to submit the earliest photo I remember being in, there would be only one contender: a classic Canadian winter scene.
Me: "It's this photo of me and all my siblings, and we are all bundled up in these huge snowsuits."
The cold weather often makes an impression on new Canadians. Joella has received so many snow photos that her team created an Instagram post that just says, "Canada is fricking cold!" This speaks to the level of curation, care and humour she brings to the project, which could otherwise easily become a scrolling timeline of selfies at landmarks and baggage claims.
We used to take our annual family photo at Canada's Wonderland, and I'm sure that was true for many other Ontarians hoping to encapsulate their Canadian idealism in a single photo.
"The main goal is trying to convey a collective experience of newcomers through these individual stories," Joella says. "We're trying to show that there are multiple layers of this experience. We're told we should be grateful for this experience, and we internalize that, so any sense of loss or grief or loneliness, we just squash that down because you need to be grateful."
We both laughed at that because the truth cut so deeply. Growing up in an immigrant family, I knew little about my parents' lives before they moved here. They left their past behind and don't always share it — not because it was traumatic but because it was joyous. My parents left one of the most beautiful places on earth to come here, and it's only human to carry some pain around that. Joella echoed this with a story from the project about the complexity of the newcomer experience.
"There is this story of Narendra and Chandra," Joella says. "Their photo is taken in the '50s, and it's a beautiful family portrait from Stanley Park in Vancouver. They had adopted a girl from his brother in Fiji. He says this picture is 'like gold for me now' and is framed by his bed because she was the first person to call them 'mom' and 'dad.' She passed away over 10 years ago now."
Another photo that stands out is a simple one of a woman named Huda wearing a parka. It appears to be a typical selfie, but Huda is taking the picture to tell her family she arrived safely and is applying for asylum.
"For followers of the account, the main thing is that they enjoy reading the stories and feel connected to these people," Joella says. "There are multiple newcomer narratives that are complex and messy. Two conflicting emotions can exist at the same time and hopefully inspire people to be curious about the people in their lives."
In many ways, these photos represent a visual reflection of our immigration policies and how they have impacted individual stories. There is no singular immigrant experience. People come to this country in a multitude of ways, just like my mother did almost 50 years ago. But despite what was gained in arrival, they have each lost something in their departure, and these first photos honour that. Ultimately, it speaks to why we share personal photos in the first place: to let our family and friends know we are alive, we are here and we are safe — even if there is a thumb in the shot.
For more details on how to submit your own first photo, visit First Photo Here.