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  • The Photograph as a Receptacle of Memory
  • Albert Chong (bio)

I have come to know the world by the physical and, unlike my fathers many generations ago, also by the virtual. The virtual world is to some people as real if not more so than the physical. My first introduction to the virtual world, I would argue, began with my introduction to photographs by way of the family photo album. Being the last child of nine, I remember feeling like I had walked into a movie theater near the end of the film. I had no idea who many of the people were that were mentioned or pointed out in the family album. I recall feeling transported back in time when looking at old family pictures, as if our most precious commodity was the experiences we had shared as a group of related people and the proof of the connectedness and continuity was this collection of memories we called photographs.

Photographs have become the pivotal and essential tool in the construction of personal identity. Most of us alive today are aware of who we are by virtue of family snapshots; formal documents such as passports and driver’s licenses; or photos that record or document important rites of passage or ceremonies that mark our journey through life. After a big hurricane, what do people go looking for if their house is destroyed? Photographs. Without the evidence of pictures many of us would have very little proof that we ever existed. I first came to terms with this while fulfilling a request from my mother to fix a torn photograph that was the only one of her as a child. This process of rephotographing led me to construct still-life assemblages that would incorporate or use the family photograph as the main element. Many indigenous people claim that picture-taking steals one’s soul and see the photograph itself as suspect. In many [End Page 128]

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“Aunt Winnie,” 1995.

[End Page 129]

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“Cousin Shirley,” 1986.

of the still lifes, I attempt to do the reverse by creating on the surface of the photo a shrine that is an act of reverence seeking to restore the souls of these ancestors of mine.

I wonder, where are the great photographs of the Caribbean, the iconic pictures that have become part of the visual memory of the people and their struggle for everything from freedom to independence and the construction of nations from slave colonies? If I think of Cuba, I think of Alberto Korda’s photograph of Che Guevara in a beret with a star; for Haiti, I think of Aristide. I think Jamaica’s version of the Che picture is the one of Bob Marley in the mid-1970s that was used for the album Natty Dread and later imitated by Lauryn Hill. Another is the picture of Marley joining together—in a demonstration of peace and unity—the hands of Michael Manley and Edward Seaga at the National Stadium in Kingston, while Marley himself was framed with the halo of the full moon. Another contender is the image of Jimmy Cliff in [End Page 130] the movie poster from The Harder They Come, striking the pose with his guns. Where are the sadly, or gladly, profound photographs to be found? The tragic hero whose assassination now changes for the worst the history of that nation, or in the triumphant beat of the chest of Usain Bolt that reverberated worldwide? Some nations, primarily those of sub-Saharan Africa, are forever visually associated with images of genocide, famine, and war, as Haiti is and will forever be associated with grinding poverty.

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“My Father’s Speeding Ticket,” 1989.

Family photographs are like windows to my past and a fraction-of-a-second glimpse into the lives of the people who lived in that past. I have continued to honor their memory through the act of veneration that is the construction of a still-life photograph focused around a picture or portrait of an ancestor. In the veneration of the past and of those...


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pp. 128-134
Launched on MUSE
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