PhD Candidate in American Studies

All Posts

Family Album Series: Oral History and My Family Album (#1)

I spent the last two weeks in Los Angeles, both to spend time with my family and to begin mapping out the nitty gritty of my oral history work. Given that my research doesn't easily lend itself to the well-established archives housed in cultural institutions and universities, I have acquired the technical and theoretical skills needed to collect oral histories over the years of my graduate study. This summer, the real work of it begins, as I start to collect oral histories of Iranian Americans around Los Angeles for my dissertation. 

I was trained in part by Suzanne Snider, the founder and director of the Oral History Summer School. Rather than serving as a methodology or a means to an end (such as a research project), Snider emphasized oral history collection as an end in itself—a project that reassigns the notion of "expert" in our society. She emphasized the importance of collecting the history of a person's life and going where the narrator leads you, rather than asking a specific set of questions from a printed sheet in front of you. Even when conducting focused interviews for a project, it is important to allot 15-20 minutes to collecting life history before moving into the themes pertinent to a particular project. (Considering that an average recording session is only 1-1.5 hours, these 15-20 minutes are indeed substantial.) It is this particular approach to gathering information—one that considers the context of a person's entire life, their affect, their agency—that I find so generative in oral history. In fact, my perspective on oral history is in part why I decided to begin my year of fellowship with its collection: its focus on the authority and full life of those in an underrepresented community inspires me to keep going in my work. That its collection and preservation have meaning and speak to a memory that didn't necessarily leave a paper trail. 

In order to honor the significance of (a whole) life history as oral history, the design of my oral history project is one in which I plan to interview a single narrator twice. The first session will consist of a life history collection, where I follow the narrator through the themes and events most significant to them. Not only do I believe that this session will establish the authority of the narrator in their experiences of migrating to and setting in the United States, but it also will allow future scholars to glean other subjects of interest from their histories once I am able to archive the collection. The second session will then be a more focused interview prompted by visual artifacts—in this case, family photographs. 

Photographs have become a medium that in recent years I have become more interested in incorporating into my dissertation project. Especially given their particular historical use as an Orientalizing force in Europe and the US (I'm thinking about Malek Alloula and Nicholas Mirzoeff's work here), it's been productive for me to think about the self-representation of Iranian Americans through a medium that has so often used to their detriment. What does it look like when we instead take a Bourdieusian lens to photography of Iranians rather than a predominately Saidian one? It is in these second sessions with my narrators that I'm interested to hear the way that they speak about such family photographs—what the event was of, their affective responses, what significance it holds for them and their family. 

Working on this project design throughout the year has consequently prompted me to think a lot about my own family photographs—their narrative, what they mean to me, how I feel when I look at them. (After all, it's no coincidence that the Home image of my website is a photograph of my father—he's the one playing the violin—and his friends at a party in Iran many, many years ago.) The albums themselves are tucked away in a cupboard that is rarely opened, and it's clear that the albums themselves were haphazardly constructed. In one page alone, there are photographs of my mother's time as a teenager in New Hampshire, of her college years in Illinois, of my uncle in their old family home in Tehran, and of a family trip to an ancient monument in Iran. These images meld together on the page—a combination of here and there in faded color. They reflect physical sites that can be named and visited, they elicit memories for my mother and fictions for me (an image of my mother as an adolescent watching TV with the family pictured at the right on a cold New Hampshire night), they prompt feeling (awe at images of my mother and uncle's youth, surprise that I have a similar photo of myself in college laughing while sitting on a dorm bed with my friends).  

I went through the album alone and then with my mother, who captioned each photograph of her youth in a sentence before asking, "Can you see me? Do you know which one is me?" For the most part, I was able to (her particular smile gave it away). As we continued on, as I pointed to my mother's face in image after image, I thought for a moment of Pierre Bourdieu. His understanding of photography is one that centers its social function as an "integration" of the family and the essence of social memory. The images of my and my mother's youth visually constructed the networks of our family and produced an affective intimacy between me and faces both familiar and unknown. The affective power of photography's visuality seemed to me as poignant as an audible quiver in a recording of a voice recounting a memory. 

I think about this and I think about how each photograph holds so much, as though the images were bubbling up to form a dome of all the stories and feelings it is trying to contain. And I see oral history as a means from which some of these stories are able to be released from the object that contains them, perhaps even giving rise to other memories with the same people or from the same places—one story building to another and then another. I am drawn to the way that oral history and photography both make room for—even center—affect, and how this may relate to the production of authority for the narrator. I am thinking through how oral history and photography can be brought together most effectively as a means of recovery or uncovering feeling and legitimacy—the creation of an affective community. 

At least, these are my initial thoughts on the practice of oral history and the photographic archive—one that may at times move away from an analysis steeped in Orientalism. Given that I have titled this post with "(#1)", these images are ones that I plan to revisit and my thoughts are ones that I envision will change. 

Works cited:

  • Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle-brow Art. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005.