Historically, studies of early 20th-century Pueblo painting focused on the role non-Native anthropologists, artists and patrons played in fostering and marketing Pueblo art. In the last two decades, there has been a shift in approach spearheaded by scholars in the…
‘Family Pictures Syracuse’ Brings City’s Marginalized Histories Into Focus
If a picture paints a thousand words, what new Syracuse community portrait will emerge to illustrate the past and present stories of individuals and families who have long been neglected in the public memory?
Organizers of the community photographic project, “Family Pictures Syracuse,” want to visualize just that and are asking Syracuse families to share their family photos and stories on camera to create a living photo archive. Community members—particularly those whose histories have been marginalized—are invited to talk about their family histories at a recorded interview station, digitize their family photos for later exhibition and have new portraits taken with their family photographs.
The project is designed to build a more inclusive history of the city. It takes place Oct. 13-15 through a series of activities and events with Yale University artist and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris and his Family Pictures Institute for Inclusive Storytelling. The initiative is being coordinated by students and faculty in the University’s Turning the Lens Collective. The group is composed of Roger Hallas, associate professor of English; Caroline Charles, a Ph.D. candidate in English; Jessica Terry- Elliott, a Ph.D. candidate in history; Sarhia Rahim ’26, a policy studies major and Aniyah Jones ’25, an English and textual studies and psychology major.
Three Weekend Events
Events include a film screening and discussion of “Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” with Harris (Friday, Oct. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m.). The Photo-Sharing Day with community members takes place Saturday, Oct. 14, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A grand finale to celebrate the archived images and oral storytelling is planned on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., and includes music, poetry and special guests. All events take place at the Everson Museum at 401 Harrison St. in downtown Syracuse.
Hallas says the project will build a testament to marginalized families from across the city, cultivate a more inclusive archival history of Syracuse and recognize the people suppressed, forgotten or lost to a highway (the I-81 viaduct) that created a decadeslong economic and racial barrier in Syracuse.
“Syracuse is experiencing significant transformation and renewed hope for economic progress spurred by Micron’s multi-billion-dollar investment in a semiconductor megafacility, the city’s decades of commitment to refugee resettlement and the redevelopment of housing, transportation and industry when a community grid replaces the I-81 viaduct,” Hallas says. “Yet, in moving forward equitably, it’s necessary to remember and document the past. Syracuse remains one of the most impoverished and segregated cities in the nation, specifically for its Black and Latinx communities. In its redevelopment of housing, transportation and industry, the city must not repeat the systemic violence of the past.”
Jessica Terry-Elliott, a project co-organizer, researches the application of various methodologies that comprise what scholars call “Black archival practices.” She says Family Pictures Syracuse will use oral history methods coupled with the captured moments of Black life in photographs that are often held in domestic repositories.
“Using these methods to develop this project is an actual application of Black archival practices,” Terry-Elliot says. “It will reveal the complexities of how Black life in Syracuse was and is documented and remembered, while at the same time constructing pathways to engage with memory for the future.”
Collective member Charles is writing a dissertation on the Black visual archive in film. “I’ve discovered that family photographs play a tremendous role in shaping our identity and history beyond the purview of our institutional archives,” Charles says. “The photographs we all keep in our homes—hanging on walls or tucked inside family albums—contribute to a larger story. Yet, those items are not always seen as important historical knowledge. This project affirms our photographs are themselves invaluable archives that should be studied and celebrated as such.”
Undergraduate students Jones and Rahim have supported the initiative through their Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE) appointments as research assistants on the project. A team of undergraduate students from the department of film and media arts and the Orange Television Network will staff the photo-sharing event and students in Hallas’ upcoming “Everyday Media and Social Justice” and Jessica Terry-Elliott’s “Public History” courses in spring 2024 will further the project after its launch.
The collective is also coordinating with the Engaged Humanities Network’s WriteOut Syracuse, a youth afterschool program designed to get students Interested In writing and storytelling, and Black and Arab Relationalities, a Mellon Foundation-funded research project led by College of Arts and Sciences faculty members Carol Fadda and Dana Olwan.
Wide Community Connections
Organizers are working with the Community Folk Art Center, Onondaga Historical Association and the North Side Learning Center and are collaborating with several other Syracuse community organizations for future programming.
Many sources of funding have made the project possible, including the University’s departments of African American Studies; anthropology; communication and rhetorical studies; English; film and media arts; history; Jewish studies; Latino/Latin American studies; LGBTQ studies; policy studies; religion; sociology; television, radio and film; visual communications; women’s and gender studies; and writing. External funding has been provided by Humanities NY and the Allyn Family Foundation.
Also sponsoring the project are the Democratizing Knowledge project; Engaged Humanities Network; SOURCE; Special Collections Research Center; Syracuse Humanities Center; The Alexa; Lender Center for Social Justice; Light Work and Orange Television Network.
In November, the Special Collections Research Center at Bird Library will host “Family Pictures in the Archive” (Wednesday, Nov. 15, 5 to 7 p.m.). The exhibition displays Black photographs from the University’s collections along with community photos archived during the Family Pictures Syracuse events.