Making A Family: The History and Theory Behind Family Photos

Making A Family: The History and Theory Behind Family Photos


By Adam Ethan Berner

With Thanksgiving around the corner, you will most likely have to endure another terrible family photo. You will have to hold onto your sanity as grandchildren to grandparents are corralled into a line, all fussing and delaying as they fidget with their clothes and hair, roll your eyes as whatever amateur photographer spends what feels like hours getting everyone to not blink for at least three seconds, and then have to start go through all of that all over again when someone inevitably doesn’t like how they look in the photo.


Of course, family photos weren’t always so consistent. For a while, family photos weren’t even a thing. Before the invention of photography, family portraits were painted luxuries for the wealthy. However, as photography became accessible, the family photo became increasingly common, until it became a practice of normal domestic life. Something ordinary and without any hidden meaning, subtext, or importance at all.


Underneath the image of a smiling face, the text of a missing persons sign reads, “Have you seen me?” The most important part of a government-issued identification document is the photograph of the person to whom it belongs. When one sees an unflattering photo of oneself, one doesn’t say, “The pixels that create a facsimile of my likeness are unflattering.” You say, “Delete that photo, I look terrible.”


Outside of mirrors, photos and videos are the only ways you can look at yourself. When we take photos at weddings, birthdays, first days at school, graduations, and all other special events, we are doing more than just documenting the event itself. We are cataloging ourselves at that moment, declaring, “This is who I am and who I was when this happened.” The image of a person is an assertion of who that person is.


Family photos adorn the walls of homes. They decorate nightstands at our bedsides where they are the last things seen before and after sleep, and living rooms for guests to see. We leave them at office desks, where they remind us of our kin and loved ones. Family photographs, from the act of capturing and viewing the photo, reinforces what the idea of family is; what the idea of what your family is. They assert that all the individuals in the picture frame are a family; that they belong to each other and together. They create the idea of what the family is, what normal family life is, and what the obligations to one another are. They help make a family.


Taking a family photo is rarely ever fun, but family is about more than fun. It will take forever and you will have to count to ten to keep yourself from yelling at the people who most share your genetic code in the world. But you will do it because it’s tradition, you’re with your family, and you wouldn’t give them up for any other family in the world. So shut up and pose before grandpa’s knee gives out. Happy Thanksgiving.

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