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Returning the Gaze

This is a journal about lost family photographs and how I try to return them to the families to whom they once belonged. It’s not just all about this though ~ it’s also about the symbolic power and uses of family photographs in general, which is something I am particularly interested in as it was the topic my PhD was based on.

One day I found an old Kodak wallet of loose family photographs for sale at a local flea market and asked the storeowner if she knew anything about them. She couldn’t tell me anything – she’d acquired it through another trader a few years earlier.


I bought the photographs and I spent days pouring over them looking for information that might give me a lead on tracing a member of the family. From the wallet I could see that the photographs were developed in Bradford. I looked on the back of them for writing, and with a magnifying glass looked for shop or road signs in the backgrounds – anything that could help me narrow things down. Information-wise the album spoke only of two things: a very poignant story of Jimmy, who in 1949 visited his Dad’s grave which held the words Elliott, Aircraft, and Royal Artillery:


A picture of George Lothian (on the right) “from your old pal Judd”.


Additionally, this couple (especially the man) were present in many of the photographs:


I made a promise to myself that day when I was semi-resigned to being unable to find them, that if I ever saw photo albums for sale, and if there was any kind of information in them that would help me connect them to a family (even just a surname or a place), then I would try to reunite the photographs with someone who had a personal connection with the people in the photos.

When I buy albums or photographs for sale, or on the odd occasion when someone gives them to me, I don’t see myself as ‘owning them’. They are not my property – I am taking care of them in the hope that one day I will be able to return them to someone who’s lives are connected to the people that inhabit the pages. Often these photographs are very old, and the people in them have are sure to have passed away leaving only the mystery of a silent spectral vapour – but sometimes there is enough information in the photographs to enable me to start searching for them or their surviving relatives.


I’ve always been fascinated by old photographs of people. There’s something incredible about seeing a moment that happened a hundred years ago on a different continent; seeing a woman in 1902 with a laugh so infectious that it can collapse time and space, rippling though a hundred years and warming me and making me feel happy whilst I sit at home and still feel the energy, the happiness from that single moment. No wonder people thought/think that photographs can capture the soul.


My passion for wanting to trace albums back to their original families stems from the PhD I am currently writing up, but also from my love of old photographs. My PhD thesis is on family photographs and how, when families and individuals go through changes (positive or negative ones) people often edit the photographs they have on display in their homes to reflect these changes. So it’s about how family politics, identity, and emotions come to imbue our photographs – how we invest more of ourselves, how we might see more of ourselves, through our photographs than we might actually realise.

This is because our photographs resonate with our lives. Usually we take them for granted – they become part of the furniture – we see them but we don’t really look at them all that often. But when someone we love dies, or when we’ve gone through a divorce or the messy breakdown of a relationship, or of course positive changes as well, any photographs that we might have of these people suddenly emerge from the background and confront us with our memories and emotions that connect us to the person or people depicted.

And so it has been through carrying out the research for my PhD that I came to appreciate just how important people’s family photographs can be for them. In a world where we are exposed to hundreds of images on a daily basis, images that we might relate to or not, our own photographs posses an indexicality to our lives that renders them priceless – they are “ours”.


We traverse them for knowledge and memories, and if we were not alive when they were taken, if they are photographs of our grandparents when they were young, or our great grandparents, then our imaginations can be set on fire as we look for ourselves in their faces, forge pathways through time, and wonder just what did happen immediately after the camera shutter retracted…


I think everyone can appreciate the importance of family photographs and what they can mean to people. Whilst we might take them for granted (even if just some of the time), they provide us with powerful and often symbolic narratives or reflections of ourselves – of our own lives but also of those we love.

Family photographs represent happiness, warmth, love, belonging, and continuity. Their power can only truly be felt if you have some deep connection with the person or people in the photograph. So I think there is something inherently sad about the photographs that I find that have been somehow removed from this base because they no longer mean in the way that they should mean. In a funny kind of way it feels like all the smiles and happiness in the photographs are a bit empty because it is only a person who has an emotional or ancestral bond with those in the photographs who can truly be touched by them.

So I’d like to invite you on a journey as I try to explore and try to reunite photographs with their families. I won’t just be writing about the logistics of trying to trace people. I’ll show you some of the photographs, write about any stories that seem to be emerging from them, and hopefully I might find a connection…or a dead end…but always, even without the whispers of these lost faces, there are stories that can be told or imagined…

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