How one man’s family photo archive led to a global ‘family’ album

Documentary filmmaker and Yale lecturer Thomas Allen Harris is on a mission to build a “people’s history” of America through ordinary family photos.
Thomas Allen Harris (right) on his PBS show “Family Pictures USA”

Thomas Allen Harris (right) on his PBS show “Family Pictures USA” (Courtesy of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, LLC)

When Thomas Allen Harris learned his brother was HIV positive in the early 1990s, he did the only thing he could think of to cope with the news: He picked up a video camera to chronicle his brother’s life.

At that time, the diagnosis was a “death sentence,” said Harris, who came to Yale last year as a senior lecturer in film and media studies and African American studies.

His brother, in turn, pointed the camera at Harris, and from there a project — and Harris’ career as a documentary filmmaker — was born. The brothers are among three pairs of siblings featured in Harris’ first feature documentary, “VINTAGE — Families of Value,” a portrait of gay and lesbian African-American family members.

Documenting life in pictures was already an important tradition in Harris’ family. His maternal grandfather, Albert E. Johnson Jr.,  often shot photographs and Super 8 videos of Harris and his brother and gave them cameras for their own self-expression. Over his lifetime, Johnson amassed thousands of slides, photographs, and videos of family members.

That archive was my grandfather’s legacy, and for the past 30 years, I’ve been mining it for my creative projects,” said Harris, who has won numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NAACP Image award, as well as Emmy and Peabody nominations, for his deeply personal documentaries.

As a Yale teacher and as founder and host of the PBS television series “Family Pictures USA,”  Harris encourages others to engage with their own family photo archives. The show, which premiered last summer, explores American neighborhoods and cities through the lens of family photographs and personal testimonies.

A scene from “Family Pictures USA”
A scene from “Family Pictures USA” (Courtesy of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, LLC)

For me, an archive is very much like a language: if you don’t use it, you lose it,” said Harris. “You don’t see the value of it, and all of a sudden you lose track of it or it gets thrown out.”

He hopes to impart that value to his students, who are barraged with digital images on social media. His fall course, “Family Narratives/Cultural Shifts,” looks at films by artists who use family archives to examine larger social movements or issues, and he encourages students to draw from their own family photo collections as well as Yale archives to create personal blogs. The students have investigated such issues as immigration, exile, identity, and illness.

I’ve taken them to the Sterling Library to look at scrapbooks by Yale students from the early 1800s, so their blogs are in dialog with those who came before,” said Harris.

In the spring term, he will teach “Archive Aesthetics and Community Storytelling,” in which students will create their own short films using archival material and community-based storytelling.

Harris helps students explore archives in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Harris helps students explore archives in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library as part of his class “Family Narratives/Cultural Shifts.” (Photo credit: Dante Haughton)

Harris was an adult before he discovered “the power of image-making,” he said. His other films include “E Minha Cara/That’s My Face” (2001), a community storytelling project about Brazil’s African roots; “­Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela” (2005), about his stepfather and others who birthed the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; and “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” (2014), which explores how photography has been a tool for social change.

Since 2009, Harris has traveled the country and beyond, collecting photographs and their stories from families at community photo-sharing events for his project Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR). He shares the photos and the family stories behind them with live audiences and uploads the materials to a website. Harris has collected more than 50,000 digital images for the project, which he said he thinks of as a giant, global family album.

Family Pictures USA” is an outgrowth of DDFR. In this documentary-style series, family photos become the springboard for exploring a neighborhood’s social and cultural history. For the pilot episodes, Harris visited Detroit, North Carolina’s rural farmlands, and towns in Southwest Florida. He is now working on the next season.

It’s kind of like ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ in that we put the word out that we are coming to town for these community photo shares. Afterwards, we chose five to seven individuals or families with whom we do a deep dive,” explained Harris. “We use their family album to construct a larger view, tying the personal history to that of the city or region. I think of it as a ‘people’s history.’ People share the stories about how they struggled and overcome, or were engaged in different social movements. Ordinary people make history.”

He’ll be a happy teacher if his students learn to appreciate their own family archives as well as Yale’s, he said.

Yale has some of the most amazing archival collections in the world, along with outstanding librarians and archivists,” said Harris. “I want my students to see the relationship between their own family narratives and the public record. I love being a conduit so that people can see the potentiality of themselves as architects of the future, and we begin by valuing the past.”

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