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Photographers and Family

May 1st - June 30th

In the next two months, here in the States, we will be observing, celebrating, even ignoring or avoiding, both Mother's Day and Father's Day. Occasions like these often stir up an enormous range of emotions and as a subject, it's one of the most personal. Whatever the circumstances, family is the stage for our earliest lessons on living and surviving in the world.

This is the only photo I have of my grandmother on my father's side. She died when he was four and his father died a few years later, leaving him orphaned at a very early age. Obviously, I never met her, but I often wonder what her life must've been like. She married young, very young, to my grandfather who was 16 years older than her, had six children and died before she was 30. And so, I wonder about her life and sometimes I think that I am carrying a little part of her spirit forward and that she would be happy for me.


Alberto Mitchel & Nicolasa Millán, family album


I love old family photos–there's a delightful awkwardness about most of them and that quality of being frozen back in the past. Let's face it, families are a messy business with even the best of them being a bit of a wreck. I think of family as this tight ball of all these entangled strands, filled with bits and pieces of lives and stories - some real...others not so much, because eyewitness accounts can be notoriously faulty. In many cases, with these images there's a sense of the familiar ... even if it's not your story ... there is a sense of recognition, as if it could have come from your own family albums. Probably a big part of our fascination with the British Royals is that recognition as we watch a wacky family drama play out on a global stage.


If we have no family of origin, taken either by circumstances or choice, then we make our own family. It's probably a survival instinct in that we're stronger and safer together, but there is also a deep internal need to surround ourselves with kindred spirits - with people who "see" us as we want to be seen, a family of the soul. Lena Dunham recently wrote a interesting article on her quest to find and keep these attachments.

Dolores, Ann & Albert Mitchell, family album

When I think of family, I think of tribes and a photographer who comes to mind is Catherine Opie, starting first with her own tribe in Being and Having and Portraits,  and then moving on to explore tribes in a larger context with Surfers and High School Football. Another photographer known for her exploration of family is Sally Mann - and while I have mixed feelings about the impact being her subject matter has had on her children, the exploration of their lives in the series Immediate Family is both visually engaging and intimate. In many ways Larry Clark’s Kids and Nan Golden‘s Ballad of Sexual Dependency are families of choice - structures with bonds created out of connection and not blood.

In this showcase, I've chosen five photographers who've used the idea of family to explore their place in the world. Several have worked with their own families - while others have used photography to observe the families of others, or fill the gaps they've experienced in life. We also see the effects of outside forces, both political and economic on the most intimate of experiences. Once again many thanks to Douglas Stockdale, photographer, founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal for curating this set of family-inspired photography books - this time the subject matter really made it a hard choice with so many to choose from.

Jo Ann Chaus

Sweetie & Hansom

In 2008, I was enrolled in a class with Susan Kleckner called “A Roll a Day” at the International Center of Photography in New York City. A roll a day is yes, 36 pictures a day, which likely initiated my practice of recording my travels through out a day, anywhere and everywhere.  I was headed to Florida for a visit with my parents that week, and she urged me, almost wistfully, to “make pictures, make pictures” of them while I was there.  I read it as an urgent message, to record what I could when I could; it was great advice.

There is something that happens in my body at the moment of seeing something that bears recording, and again viewing it later when it was the right capture; what is the message in the image? What history has been recorded there, ancient and current, declaring I was there, we were there, and here we are now?

I made many visits with the curiosity and intention to get to know them better as people, not just as my parents.  Ultimately it was an insight to understanding myself better as well, and a long inquiry to understanding the relationships within and between them, my brothers and me.  While there was some discomfort with them as we were often awkward together, the camera was a shield between them and me, and satisfied us all:  they were agreeable, liked the attention, were photogenic and had a beautiful home. I could be an observer and a participant, whenever a moment or the light was right, and spending so much time yielded a beautiful body of work, and a new intimacy with them.

The images were made over a seven-year period, with signs of aging and temporality of time.  The heart of the work is about family, loss, grief, and love, which presented itself after the sudden passing of my younger brother who had struggled with addiction for most of his fifty-four years. It is also about how a family comes together to support one another when they don’t really know how.  Over those seven years many secrets were revealed and I got to know and love my parents more deeply.  The images express the unfathomable pain sustained amidst the beauty of and within their home, the collective and private unspoken fears and unease they each carried for years.

After this work seemed complete I self-published Sweetie & Hansom in 2016, with twelve pages of original text.  I learned how to look deeply, over time at a subject. Conversations with Myself, the next body of work, presented itself organically as I began looking at myself with the same curiosity, to get to know and understand myself as I am and what mattered to me after so many years of being there for others. The work lives as prints and in a self-published book by the title Sweetie & Hansom, printed by Conveyor Editions in NJ. Images have been shown in Maryland and SxSE Gallery in Molena Georgia in 2018.

© Jo Ann Chaus, all rights reserved

Shay McAtee

The Spirit Within: Insights into the Autism Spectrum

The Spirit Within: Insights into the Autism Spectrum is a 10-year project, culminating in a book containing photographs of 52 children / teens, with interviews of their parents (and occasionally, a sibling or the subject themself). The photographs are candid, often taken in the child’s home. They are not posed, unless that is what the child offered. The interviews were an opportunity for the parents to share what is beautiful about their child, while also describing the difficulties their child might have fitting into the typical world. As one mother said, “This is fun for us to get a chance to brag about our son. We don’t often get that opportunity. There’s so much information about the problems of autism, and there is definitely a time and a place for that. But I’m glad that we also get to share what is wonderful about our son.”

"He still is developing his verbal skills. He doesn’t use his words all the time. He won’t tell me when he’s in pain or why. He doesn’t engage in social interaction with his own peers. When his peers want to hug him, he’s starting to hug back, because he knows that they’re not trying to hurt him. He’s processing all that and it’s starting to sink in. Today I saw a little girl in his class hug him and when he hugged her back, I almost cried."  - Jimmy George’s mom

"There was something magical about the first time he saw his little sister. There was a look on his face that was different than all the looks I’d ever seen before. You could tell that he knew that this little baby was different than all the other babies in the world. As time went by, there was more of a social connectedness in our house. It started to fall into place." - Damian’s mom

"We’re very tuned into all the little successes. There’s always something new. A while back he smiled when I picked him up from school. I realized that, up until then, he didn’t usually smile when I picked him up. It was a big deal that he was happy to see me. Little things are big successes. Making it through the entire school day without having a fit or being aggressive is a big success. You really learn to appreciate the little things. Although they are not little. They’re huge, but it’s just a little bit every day, instead of these giant leaps."  - August’s mom

"Eleni has a very loving spirit and she will do anything for her younger sister, Kate. They don’t have a typical sister relationship, because most sisters fight some of the time. But these two get along really well. Whatever Kate wants, Eleni gives her. And Kate does everything for Eleni. For most of her life, Kate has taken on a therapist role for Eleni. They play games that they have made up together. It’s a way for Kate to bring Eleni in and try to get her to interact in different ways."  - Eleni’s dad

"Amberly is very artistic. She loves to draw. She is happy most of the time, although she is a little more moody as she is becoming a teenager. When she’s mad, she will run upstairs to her bedroom and slam the door. It’s very typical teenage behavior. If I come in the room, she’ll go into her closet. Then I know that she has to have some down time. Mostly, she’s pretty good. She gets over things pretty quickly."

- Amberly’s mom

"Adam is very laid-back. He has a good heart. He has empathy for other kids, especially kids that are getting picked on. When Adam was eleven or twelve-years-old he was being bullied for a brief time. Finally, he went in by himself and met with the principal. He got a restraining order which said that the bully had to stay at least twenty feet away from him. And it worked. Growing up he was always able to say, 'This feels uncomfortable, so I’m not going to do it that way. I’m going to do it my way.' "  - Adam’s parents


This project combines my love of photography with my years of working as a pediatric occupational therapist, often with children from the spectrum. I have had the opportunity to present and exhibit this project at local galleries, as well as at international conferences, and have received interest in replicating the project in other countries.

The book is dedicated to the parents of children on the spectrum, especially those who have children that have been recently identified, as they navigate the steep learning curve that accompanies the diagnosis. It is for the families and friends of parents with children on the spectrum, who are looking for greater insight into the autism spectrum experience. It is for the professionals who are a part of these lives, to help us all remember to ask for and listen to the stories. And it is for society in general, especially those who are interested in understanding the autism spectrum in a deeper, more relational way. The Spirit Within: Insights from the Autism Spectrum is available through most on-line bookstores.

© Shay McAtee, all rights reserved

Margaret Mitchell

© Margaret Mitchell, all rights reserved


Family (1994) features the daily lives of my late sister Andrea and her three children, Steven, Kellie and Chick, as they navigated their lives in difficult emotional and socio-economic circumstances in Central Scotland. In 1994, the family lived in an area that consistently scored high on government statistics on deprivation across factors including health, employment, income, education and housing. Against this backdrop of disadvantage, the series concentrated on the siblings’ bonds, reflecting on their lives in all the complexity of being a child in that place, at that time and in the circumstances that they were.

The work was political in its premise, the family’s life was one where the Conservative government made it very difficult for people like Andrea to survive financially. She was also judged by the system because of who she was – a single mother by this point – and where she lived, on a ‘deprived’ housing estate. The children’s world was one of intense relationships and their lives played out in the interiors of both their own home and that of their gran’s. That is where the photographs found their story: in their childhoods containing both joy and difficulty, against this backdrop of domestic life in the situation and circumstances of that place and that time.

Family is a project on childhood, on a certain lived domesticity, of complex influences seeping slowly into children’s selves, contributing and shaping who they were to become. Individual images let us into aspects of the children’s lives. When viewed as a fuller documentary, the images offer a wider story of their childhood and serve as a background to the lives that unfolded as the years progressed.

An updating project In This Place revisits the family’s story over 20 years later, tracing their trajectories and offering a broader commentary on environment, opportunity and social inequality. Both projects are available in the book Passage (Bluecoat Press) where three generations lay out their lives reflecting not only on the personal but also the political, presenting a story of love and loss with social inequality at its heart.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval


Family photographs are important to me. My dad is from a low-income family who could only afford to have two photographs taken of him as a kid. My mom is from a family of nine siblings, all of them orphaned when she was four. All their pictures are scattered among my aunts and uncles and rarely do I get to see what my grandfather looked like, and only then on a phone picture of a picture.

Maybe it was because of this lack of access to my own family archive that I started collecting other people’s pictures. Everywhere I travel, I stop at yard sales, and visit local flea markets to give orphaned pictures a home. A few years back a friend gave me a box of pictures she got at an estate sale. It contained a lot of slides, including stereoscopic slides, which I hadn’t heard of before. The moment I got a viewer, I fell in love. It is not easy to explain how it feels to experience them: you peep into a special viewer to see these back-lit images create small three-dimensional spaces frozen in time. You don’t feel like you are in the middle of a scene, more like you are spying on a miniature world.

Since then, I’ve increased my collection to over four thousand family stereo slides. I started collecting by family and invested in other people’s lives, wondering: who they were, what they liked, and why their family pictures were discarded. At some point, I started to think about ways of playing with these images and came up with the idea of collaging image spaces, starting what would become my project, Bellows. This idea is easier said than done. It took me a year of experimenting and trying to come up with the right formula to create spaces that the viewer’s brain would still interpret as 3-D.

I have made forty collages. At first I could only collage two images in very simple ways. Now, I can create any kind of space with elements as close or as far from the viewer as I imagine. To make them I first go through my slides and set aside the ones that catch my eye. I then scan both the right and left frames of each. In Photoshop, I make two collages, one for each frame. The relationship between objects in these collages determines the dimensionality, and if the viewer will interpret the image as 3-D. Both images are then recorded onto slide film and mounted onto slide mounts.

Family pictures create communal spaces. I remember after a trip, my family would gather around a stack of pictures and flip through them, passing them from person to person; or when a family member would invite us over for a carrousel viewing of an event; or when someone would bring out an album as a means of reminiscing. I exhibit my constructed family archives, allowing the audience to choose and change which stereo slides they would like to view from a back-lit slide sorter and multiple stereo viewers. When I create these collages I am making up a new family album that includes all of these families whose album has been discarded. When I invite the audience to view them, I create a new communal space that includes them.

© Martha Naranjo Sandoval, all rights reserved

Fan Shi San

Two of Us

I made the Two of Us Portraits project between 2009-2013, photograph people who grew up as only child in China with an imaginary sibling, all only child as a result of the strict 30 years of One-Child Policy of 1980-2010. The policy is enforced at provincial level through fines and other punishments, leaving a result of over 100 million only child in China.

The One-Child Policy in China restricts the number of children a married urban couple can have to one. In fact, nearly every Chinese born after 1980 in urban, including myself, is only child with no siblings.

The absence of siblings left deep imprint on One-Child generation's identity, The loneliest generation in China history are searching for something more meaningful to connect with others.

Beside the Rusticated Youth of China, and the Culture Revolution, the only child generation was the nation’s most turmoil in post-Mao China, but it is more personal and internal. To me, the imaginary of Two of Us is much true than today‘s reality, the progress of shooting Two of Us is a ceremony, to record the tragedy history of One-Child into memories.

© Fan Shi San, all rights reserved

PhotoBook Journal

Once again I am sending many thanks to Douglas Stockdale, photographer, founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal for continuing this partnership by curating a wonderful set of photography books that look at how photographers explore family.

The reviews are on a separate page, use this link.

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