I AM HERE: A Look Back
The AGO's I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces was an exhibition that certainly succeeded in making me think. I left pondering many questions: What does it mean to exist? What is it to be seen and remembered? More importantly, what is privacy?
From its introductory text, the exhibit blends and blurs the boundaries of culture to posit a universal, eternal “documentary drive” spanning from cave paintings to TikTok. After years of studying anthropology, I’m always skeptical of universals. They very rarely exist. We have no idea what motivated ancient people to make cave paintings. Were they intended as legacies, observations of the world, religious devotion, teaching tools, or simply beauty for its own sake? We can only guess.
In the age of social media, a new question comes to mind: What about a right to be forgotten? Do we not deserve to fade into obscurity when our time comes? Think about digital ghosts, the residual social media profiles of the deceased. Facebook notifications to wish a happy 90th birthday that doesn’t exist. As children raised in a digital world come of age, people are increasingly afraid that embarrassing childhood moments shared on social media could affect their entire life. Several counties and the entire European Union have implemented “right to be forgotten” laws which require digital directories and search engines to remove an individual’s private information at their request. In this context, I’m not sue I agree with I AM HERE’s suggestion that photography is inherently an invitation for publicity.
A centerpiece of the exhibition is Max Dean’s collection of lost-and-found photo albums that date from the 1890s to the present. According to the exhibit text, this ‘Provides an opportunity to think about the changing nature of photographic objects. As Dean has remarked, “Photo albums are the one, and possibly only, story many of us write.”’
Unknown British. British Family living in Italy, 1920s-1930s. Album: 135 gelatin silver prints and 1 cyanotype on 162 pages in a tan album, Album: 25.5 x 29.5 x 6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Max Dean, 2016. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2016/354
It prompts me to think, perhaps not in the way the museum intended. I wonder about the extraordinary cultural and technological changes that photographs have undergone over the course of their existence. Did people in the 1960s take pictures with the expectation they would be shared in an art gallery? Who are we to suggest that these albums were “written” to tell a story. And even if they were, is this story necessarily publicly consumable and comprehensible? Photo albums are typically kept in the home and used to reminisce with friends and family. The opening of the book serves as a declaration of shared intimacy and understanding. Without the photographed or photographer present, what stories can these images tell?
I’d like to contrast these anonymous faces with Sara Angelucci’s Everything in My Father’s Wallet / Everything in My Wallet (2005). The compiled contents of wallet, interpreted by a loving daughter, tell us the story of her father’s life, work, habits, and peculiarities. To me it only emphasized the void in the lost-and-found collections. The human element, the invitation to intimacy embodied by the intentionality of the display is entirely missing. How can we possibly claim to understand or remember the enormity of a human life with a single, silent image?
Everything in my Father's wallet / Everything in my wallet (2005). Approximately 96 (10 x 10 inches), 2 (15 x 15 inches) colour photographs. Sara Angelucci.
Even more a glaring disregard of privacy is the collection of Casa Susanna photos, from a resort in the Catskills which served as a safe haven for cross-dressers dating back to the 1960s. These photos were explicitly secret from a prejudiced world. They were taken to not be shared. What distinguishes a secret moment from a private one? We assume these photos are for public consumption. A common tendency in our culture is to assume queer existence is a public performance, a drag show. But is it really? Most of the photos in this collection were taken inside the house, with blinds closed. They feature private moments, people in the process of getting dressed. How would you feel if you were the one in the photo?
Lastly, Protest Footage in the Social Media Era raises major concerns. Since the mass publicity that accompanied the Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, activists are increasingly skeptical about the circulation of protest footage. Many of these are late used as evidence by police to interrogate or arrest protestors. Some particularly well-known activists were also found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Edward Crawford returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, on Aug. 13, 2014. In May 2017 Crawford died of apparent suicide after being harassed by police. Photo by Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Zuma Press.
Increasingly, activists warn that the power to spread awareness through social media by sharing these videos is far outweighed by the risks. While the AGO may be using footage that is already publicly available, it is elevating it to a wider audience, further sharing things which should not be shared.
I have no solid conclusion to this review. I AM HERE left me with more questions than answers. But may I leave you with a suggestion: What obligations do we hold to the people who once created, owned, or even were an object now in a museum? How can we share knowledge and history publicly while maintaining their privacy and dignity?