Ghosts of Christmases Past

I cannot think of anything dearer to me than Family.

It isn’t just the bonds of loyalty, support, and trust invested in siblings, parents, and partners that endear me to the idea of Family, but the deep connection that it has to one’s identity, memory, and past. No one is more responsible for who I am (or for my very existence) than my family and parents. Not to mention their parents, their parent’s parents, and so on.

Our seminar “Performances of Memory” (March 12), while problematizing the very concept of family and my desires to photographically enshrine those who I love most, has inspired me to grapple with and put to rest a dying family tradition that more recently I have begun to unconsciously ignore and forget. I want to pay my respects to my web of extended family members, an Imagined Community of Wiebes being held together by almost nothing more than the frames of our ageing Christmas family photos. I want to pay my respects to the glue that kept us all together for many years: my Great-Grandparents.

Great Grandparents

This is the oldest photo in my possession of my Great-Grandparents, Annie (née Penner) & Clanton Wiebe.

Though it has been less than a decade since their passing, I feel as close to / far apart from this photo as I do from their most recent photos.

This photo haunts me,

because it makes me remember; where otherwise I would ignore or forget.

because in the short amount of time that I lived in Winnipeg’s downtown core I often found myself walking past the exact spot where my Great-Grandparents are standing. The east side of Hargrave Street, just a couple of blocks from the infamous Calvary Temple on Cumberland Avenue.

because of the sheer amount of contingency their relationship, and the many lives that it created and influenced, hangs on. Though I do not know when this was taken, I pretend that it was on their first date. By their expressions I can tell it went fairly well. What if it hadn’t? Would I be here, writing this now, if Clanton had forgotten to hold the door to the restaurant open? What if Annie’s breath had smelt bad? I find it a disturbing thought that something so infinitesimal might have changed the course of my own history.

And because, as his first-born great-grandchild, I was one of six others who carried Clanton to his grave. His was the only open-casket funeral I have attended, and though there is no photo of him resting in his casket, there need not be. The image of the last time I saw him is etched in my mind.

At times I dwell on my father’s words when he eulogized Annie. He spoke about her “love language,” baking and cooking. That is, the way that she showed affection for the many people that she cared about. Though she did not pass on this particular “language” to her eldest son (my own Grandfather), I believe he and his wife found their own way of expressing the affection they felt for their family and for his parents: hosting the Wiebe family Christmas dinner and taking the family photo.

XMAS 2001

While I have found earlier Christmas family photos from before my Grandparents began hosting us at the House on Forbes Road, this one from 2001 is the oldest I could find from after this tradition began. The tacky Beach theme of this Christmas (complete with palm tree in the top-left corner) was conceived of by my Grandparents as a way to help ease themselves mentally back into the harsh, reviled prairie winter. Though I find the image cute and warm (not just because of the imaginary Australian sun beating down on us), I see it more as a foreshadowing. A decade after this, my Grandparents spend more of their winters under the Texan sun than in Winnipeg. For that matter, no Wiebe is spending any more time under the roof of the beloved House on Forbes, purchased years ago by a family I’ve never met. The photos stay the same, but my understanding of them change and shift under the weight of continued accumulation of life experience and new memories.

XMAS 2002

XMAS 2004

XMAS 2005

XMAS 2006

(2002-2006)

There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to where we positioned ourselves relative to one another. Spouses might sit next to one another one year, while the next they might be on opposite sides of the photo. My own younger siblings alternate between the arms of their parents, aunts & uncles, and their older brother.

Faces may get older, even disappear or reappear, but I am struck by the general continuity of these five years. The ritual of taking the photo ALWAYS followed the same schedule without fail: it would take half an hour to collect everyone from the disparate corners of the House on Forbes (an adventure I was often recruited for); fifteen minutes to squish together around the living room couch (here we had to make sure no cousins wandered off before everyone had arrived); and another fifteen for my Grandparents to bicker over who had lost the camera, find it, bicker over who had left dead batteries in the camera, find new batteries, bicker over how to use the camera’s timer, find the setting, and finally take the picture and then take a few more, just in case. My youthful disdain and impatience for this routine slowly turned into an unfailing adoration. You learn to love your family’s flaws.

From my own young perspective, recording the family’s Christmas was a sacred, albeit tedious, enterprise. Everyone seemed to agree on the importance of being in the photo and those family members who had wished to attend but for whatever reason could not were often photo-shopped into the frame. The embracing couple at the top-right corner of 2003 were not actually in attendance that year. Neither was my father’s cousin at the top-left corner of 2006. Our family might at times be physically apart, but we could still be photographically together with a little (digital) Christmas magic.

The presence of boyfriends & girlfriends were sometimes (very quietly) put into question: “Why should he be in the photo if she’s just going to break up with him again in a month or two? It’ll ruin the picture.” “I wish his last girlfriend was still around. I hope it doesn’t work out between him and this new one.” Young, naïve, eavesdropping Brad couldn’t agree more with his gossiping relatives: Family was supposed to be permanent, forever. I didn’t want to have to look at strange men and women years after (what I and my relatives perceived as) an inevitable break-up while perusing the holy album of Christmas family photos. The album’s continuity and sanctity mustn’t be violated. Yet soon enough I too would introduce a strange new face to our tradition; a face whose presence certainly wasn’t permanent.

XMAS 2007

Family isn’t permanent.

Christmas 2007 was the first without Clanton. You might not immediately notice the absence, but I do. I feel the absence even more because it is the first step in a slippery slope. I know what comes next without needing to look.

XMAS 2008

In preparation for their retirement my grandparents sold the House on Forbes. The house that they themselves had built, where my father & aunt were raised, and where we were supposed to always spend our Christmases together.

In spite of the loss of a patriarch and the space to which Christmas had been intrinsically linked (at least in my mind), the Wiebes gave Christmas another shot, at least for Annie’s sake. Meeting at a restaurant, we had our waitress take the photo. There was no bickering, I did not need to corral or cajole. The process only took a moment. It wasn’t right.

XMAS 2009

We did it again, one last time in 2009. A shorter get-together, a different restaurant. Many extended family members were now in other places, perhaps with different families creating new traditions of their own. Our matriarch, the strongest link that we all had to one another, had joined her deceased husband. Apart from a desire to continue a tradition, I can’t seem to find the continuity that as a child I had hoped would go on forever.

I look at this picture and I see the faces of my youngest cousins who will never remember their Great-Grandparents and will never know the House on Forbes road: things I had always thought were essential to being a Wiebe.

It was around this time that my Grandparents started having us get together on the side and taking back-up pictures: gatherings and photos of their children and grandchildren. No extended family.

XMAS 2008a

XMAS 2009a

The site of these smaller gatherings (2008-2009) alternated and the photos that were produced from them never found the same permanence or potency as the older ones. In fact, I cannot seem to find photos for 2010 or 2011; years when I am almost certain we did not celebrate with extended family. Did we bother taking any? Are they lost? Either way, the fact that they are not now in my possession speaks to the decline of our Christmas tradition and to their relative unimportance in relation to the older family photos.

XMAS 2012

I see this photo from 2012 as the end. Extended family (obviously now many years absent from our Christmas family photos) has gotten older, passed on, started new families, splintered, and migrated. Not many of us seem to call Winnipeg home anymore. Annie & Clanton no longer magnetically attract us all together and there is no place quite like Forbes road that could adequately accommodate and welcome all of us together. These people and that place only exist in these photographs, and for that I both cherish and hate this album. My Grandfather, prime instigator of our tradition and the seeming head of the Wiebe clan after Annie and Clanton’s passing, spent what I believe to be his first Christmas outside of Canada this past December.

XMAS 2014

His only daughter’s family recently moved to Alabama and hosted him and my grandmother for a warm, snowless Christmas. Further north, in my own childhood home, his only son tried to jumpstart a near-dead tradition and bring as much of the extended Wiebe clan together as possible, the first time anything like this had been attempted in many years. Though quite a few of us managed to make an appearance that day, we forgot to take a picture…

Post-script: In light of writing about these photos and participating in our seminar, I am certain that I am too emotionally invested in these photos to ever be able to properly scrutinize and analyze them according to the methods and theories put forward by the many authors we have consulted in the last three months. At the same time, I am unprepared to cede interpretive authority over them to an outsider. In retrospect, I question the advisability of my publishing this post. The desire to bury these photos and protect them from others’ gaze is almost as palpable as the desire to share this story.

The Capitalist Harem: Images of an Overt Eroticism

While the concept of intimacy may connote sexuality and eroticism, for me personally it means above all interpersonal understanding, familiarity, comfort, and trust, both physically and emotionally, earned through a relationship of mutual respect. Intimacies based in respect, between photographer/photographed and between photographic subject/viewer, are what I became preoccupied with while reading through Lucy Lippard, Christopher Wright, and Malek Alloula for our seminar on February 26.

There were whispers of this respectful intimacy in the readings, yet insolence, abuse of trust, condescension, and objectification seemed to prevail among the photographers and audiences with which these authors grappled. Lippard herself attempts to transcend her own colonial gaze for the benefit of the photographed and to find in Mary Schaffer’s interactions with her photographic subjects a relationship of familiarity and trust. But for Alloula the women who form part of his “Colonial Harem” are used, fetishized, and rendered objects to quell colonial, racist, and heterosexual desire. It only took one moment, the taking of their picture, to capture these women in near-perpetuity. With the wide, unrepentant dissemination of their image they become “henceforth public; […] at any time, their intimacy can be broken into and violated. They have nothing to hide anymore, and what they show of their anatomy – ‘eroticized’ by the ‘art’ of the photographer – is offered in direct invitation. They offer their body to view as a body-to-be-possessed, to be assailed with the ‘heavy desire’ characteristic of pornography” (Alloula, 118). This very un-intimate and widespread use of their image, the perpetual invasion of their privacy and space, and the objectification of their bodies rob them of the right and ability to create respectful intimacy on their own terms.

Just as Tanya Sheehan’s analysis of white middle-class performances of blackness is relevant to contemporary discussions of black-face and racial/cultural appropriation taking place on university campuses today, Alloula’s look at the commodification and proliferation of sexual images of women remains pertinent in the present-day, particularly with regard to Mass Marketing. Some might argue that the invasion and destruction of respectful intimacy has been exacerbated by the superabundant use of obviously, and at times overtly, sexualized images of women by the entertainment, beauty, and fashion industries. Although, I must stress that both the proliferation of these images and the ways in which they have been used and interpreted have damaged intimacy. I believe the two go hand in hand.

Much like the Colonial Harem, American Apparel’s photographic advertisements (themselves also a sort of “anthology of breasts”), appeal to (and assuredly construct) a set of erotic desires, in this case with the intention of cementing the company’s brand and of course to sell clothing products. And again like the Colonial Harem this “Capitalist Harem” is playful in its captions and staging, claiming a sort of innocence of intention while exuding its real purpose in displaying women’s bodies and the true character of the images; however the veneer of ambiguity that creates this innocence is much, much thinner than that employed in the Colonial Harem. That being said, many of the ads seem to fall under, in some sense or another, the three variants of photos described by Alloula: the “artistic” variant where the placement and choice of fabric creates an ambiguity that straddles “modest reserve and whispered beckoning;” the “roguish distraction” of peeking nudity; and the full, nude “display” (Alloula, 106). Stylistically similar, the main difference is that these ads are evoking desires for women’s bodies, as well as for the clothing they wear.

Audiences are given two things to consider: the clothing up for sale and the eroticism of the models’ bodies, informed by their suggestive poses. The stark contrast between blatant (near-)nudity in one instance and singularity of the clothing in the other (i.e. models are typically wearing just one article of clothing; that which is being sold) not only serves to highlight both the eroticism of the image and the existence of a sole article of clothing (there are no other articles to distract us so our attention is immediately drawn to what is being advertised) but fuses them together in viewers’ eyes. If a viewer is to satisfy evoked lustful desires (assuming they haven’t turned away in repulsion to the ad’s objectification of women’s bodies) it is implied that they need only follow the model’s beckoning – the only obstacle to satisfaction is that lonely article of American Apparel clothing. Through these advertisements American Apparel’s products become associated with sex, desire, and apparently sexually available women.

According to a former American Apparel sales employee some male visitors seem to take what Alloula said about “direct invitation” and the “body-to-be-possessed” literally when interacting with female employees. One employee harassed by a male customer “felt like the clothes she was wearing were partially to blame. ‘It’s because we wear this stuff,’ she [said], gesturing to her backless dress” (Doe). While American Apparel has tried to explain away criticism and controversy over their advertising with claims to free speech/legitimate sexual expression, they apparently do little to dissuade this kind of harassment from both internal and external sources.

While one cannot necessarily draw direct causation between the consumption of erotic imagery and the crimes committed against women, I would suggest that the Capitalist Harem of overtly erotic images is contributing to the invasion of more than just photographic subjects’ intimacies. Women outside the photographic frame are being hurt too by these images’ proliferation and interpretation.

Sources:

Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem

Jane Doe, Twenty days of Harassment and Racism as an American Apparel Employee, http://gawker.com/twenty-days-of-harassment-and-racism-as-an-american-app-1629534409

I haven’t included any of the ads because you know where to find them. They get enough attention as it is.

Cheese…

I want to indulge myself. I want to talk selfies. I want to take selfies.

Much like what a selfie does for photography I am taking a more intimate and self-oriented approach to this post and probably my blog as a whole. While they may have covered a lot and could of course be used to talk about all sorts of different things, our first two sets of readings have left me reeling (pun absolutely intended). So, instead of going in for a deep dissection and giving the readings a more formal treatment here, I’ve decided to relate how some of their themes have affected my own photographic reflexivity and what directions of thinking they’ve pushed me toward.

I take my primary inspiration (or perhaps my dejection) from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag’s In Plato’s Cave, and, as someone had to point out to me, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (and to a lesser extent the second week’s readings’ focus on the observer). More specifically, I am interested in Barthes and Sontag’s anxieties over the dynamic between photographer, the photographed, and the observer. Whether with explicit intention or not, both authors present the photographed individual as a potential victim of those taking photos and of those observing them. This vulnerability of the photographed to the photographer’s will and editing and to the observer’s interpretation and use of photos, really stuck with me. I immediately began thinking of ways to remedy this and of methods of balancing this dynamic. How do we tip the balance in favour of the photographed? And I thought, what happens when we collapse these roles into one?

We get a selfie!

As both photographer and photographed, selfie-takers are in complete control of their pose, of the angle and framing of the shot, and the context in which the photo is being taken. They also own the photo and can do what they please with it (ignoring the fact that social media sites generally take ownership of photos posted to them). The selfie is always consensual and (generally) controlled.

In terms of the observer(s) of selfies, this collapsing of roles is a bit more complicated. As a staple of social media selfies are observed quite frequently by many different people, not just their owners. Yet put into the context of social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, I would still argue that a selfie’s most frequent audience member, its primary observer, is the person who took it. Where a selfie popping up on a newsfeed is fleeting for the random observer, a selfie archived under a personal collection of photos is much more enduring for the owner. Selfie-takers frequently return to their archive and would thus seem to be the most engaged with their own photos than any other. In this way, I would say that even the observation/consuming of the photo is “controlled” by the selfie’s subject/creator (while still recognizing that the selfie-taker has no real control over other peoples’ interpretation or use of the photos beyond how they’ve chosen to frame, edit, and caption them: more on this in a moment).

Through this understanding I’ve begun to see selfies as emancipating (even democratizing, to echo Benjamin). To some extent, we now all have control over our own image, even over how it is disseminated, observed, and interpreted.

Yet my own anxieties persist, for I don’t believe that the selfie adequately deals with the problems brought up by the readings. Selfies still have a dark side and I’m left thinking on two extremes.

Is Sontag’s theme of violence negated when we give the firearm/camera to the victim/photographed or is the selfie a form of subtle masochism? Are we just recreating her photographic violence and turning ourselves into objects, willingly putting ourselves on a platter to be consumed (much like the cheese currently in my mouth) by our audiences and by ourselves? In the context of social media are selfies a contest for the spotlight?

Or,

Is the selfie a way of liberating oneself from another’s camera, of controlling one’s public image in a world where avoiding the photographic lens is next to impossible? Certainly in the context of social media (as was pointed out by one of my peers in seminar), we become the curators of our own lives, editors of the digital snapshots used to outwardly represent our own identities. Are we entering Benjamin’s democratic ideal?

With these questions in mind I turn my camera on myself, look into the lens, and I proceed to observe Me.

Photo blog postWhile I don’t feel as though I can effectively deal with these questions (I’m hoping that you, my audience, attempts that instead!), I have at least learnt a bit about my own selfie-taking:

  • I use selfies to (try and) make myself look good. I am noticeably anxious about this in the photo..
  • I use selfies to make myself and others laugh. See my hilarious hastags!?
  • I use selfies to tell people about myself and to interact.
  • I use selfies to stay in my social network’s eye. I count the “Likes” I receive.

While I am the main participant in each role (photographer, photographed, observer), my selfie-taking and motivations are all very social. And after writing this post and reconsidering the position of those observing I am even more anxious about how my audience sees my selfies and by extension how they see Me personally. This anxiety makes me re-observe my older photos, ones that I had posed for and taken with express intentions and meanings in mind, even harder. I now interpret them as if they were conveying meanings I had not considered. Re-centring the audience in my selfie-taking and self-observing, I feel as though I have lost power at all levels: as photographer, photographed, and even observer.

Do they see an academic writing a scholarly blog post? Or a self-conscious goof having way too much fun and being just a little irresponsible about the way he completes his school assignments?

As well, I’m worried that I’ve been putting selfies on a pedestal. When I take a selfie I don’t actually believe that I am liberating myself from anyone or anything. I believe I’m simply indulging myself, and I’d like to know if I’m not also harming myself in the process.

As I finish the Brie & crackers and continue to sip at my wine I am left with even more food for thought. Yum!