Polaroids and patriotism: Old family pictures get star treatment at the ROM

A new exhibit opening Saturday at the ROM is showcasing family photographs from Canadians from coast to coast.

New exhibit showcases the evolution of family photos and how they’ve shaped collective memories

This photograph of a woman named Barbara, her kids Naina and Arjun, and their grandma Indira is just one of 200 artifacts that will be presented at the ROM's new exhibition: 'The Family Camera.' (ROM/Deepali Dewan)

Three kids and their mother, look on at Niagara Falls. Dad stands behind the camera and — click — a moment in time is captured on film. That moment becomes a memory. That memory defines an experience.

A new exhibit opening Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum is showcasing family photographs showing Canadians from coast to coast. It's part of the ROM's Canada 150 celebration, presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM).

The exhibit showcases family photographs, which are meant to reflect and shape our experiences of migration and sense of identity. (ROM/Hon Lu)

The Family Camera Project exhibition's goal is to bring stories of the Canadian experience into focus, and show how family photos can shape identity. It will run until Oct. 29 at the ROM and until Aug. 27 at the AGM.

The idea was born out of frustration for Dr. Deepali Dewan, an art historian and curator of South Asian Art and Culture at the ROM. In her research, she found there was an absence of family photo history and wanted to change that. 

"Despite their familiarity and ubiquity, there wasn't much to say about family photos," she said. "I realized the lack of scholarship was because of the lack of family archives."

Archive will help write 'new histories of Canada'

The ROM's exhibition is only one part of the project, which as a whole is intended to collect and preserve family photographs and stories for the ROM's collection and for future generations of historians and scholars.

"Thinking 100 years out, my hope is that this archive can help write new histories of Canada," she said.

The photographs will be held at the ROM and at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

'The Family Camera' exhibition is part of the ROM’s year-long Canada 150 celebration. (ROM/Felicity Somerset)

Dewan and a team of 25 researchers have collected more than 10,000 photographs since the summer of 2016 and they'll continue to collect them until the end of 2017.

Anyone can participate

Anyone who comes forward and shows interest is able to participate in the project. Some families have donated one photo; others have handed over entire collections.

"The project speaks in particular to those families who have large photo collections but are struggling with what to do with them," said Dewan, adding that the analog-to-digital transition has changed photo history enormously.

If those photographs are lost, dumped or sold, it becomes impossible to build historical archives, something Dewan says is a very powerful thing.

"The archive is the basic building block of history so if you want to change what you write about in history, you change what you preserve."

Hon Lu, one of the participants in the Family Camera project, says it was important for him to take part.

"It's an opportunity for us to share our narratives with the rest of the world," he said.

He submitted a photo of himself at Tokyo's Narita airport in 1979 — just one of more than 1,000 photos his family has donated to the ROM. The photograph is one of 200 items that will be featured at the ROM's exhibition.

Migration as a key theme

Lu's family left Vietnam and travelled through Hong Kong before making it to Canada — bringing many photographs with them. He says the project is a way to "contribute to the dialogue of shared culture experiences" and connect with other families who have "very similar narratives of migration" to North America.

Hon Lu submitted this photograph of himself as a boy. His family came to Canada after leaving Vietnam .Anyone who wants to participate is welcome to reach out to the Family Camera Network. (ROM/Hon Lu)

Migration is a key theme of the exhibition, and it takes on many meanings, Dewan says.

"Moving from urban to rural locations can be as impactful as moving from country to country," she said. "The exhibition tries to touch on all people's experiences in Canada."