Polaroid snapshots of African American family life. Of small and big moments. Of lives that weren’t easy, yet worth celebrating.
I first stumbled on these orphaned ghosts at yard sales, on eBay and other places. I don’t know any of the individuals depicted, but their energy seemed immediately familiar to me. Years after scanning and archiving them, I’m still haunted by their intimacy and vibrancy.
I imagine these photos to have been precious keepsakes, at least to the people they belonged to. Long before it became fashionable to tweet, instagram or snap our own carefully staged reality with selfie-sticks and flattering filters, these families empowered themselves with Polaroids to curate their own lives.
The ability to make instant hard copy snapshots was alluring. Everyday life moments could be captured, viewed and shared without delay or interference. Even though there was often a performance aspect to making Polaroids, the daily life scenes reveal a richness and complexity, reflecting the way Black people saw themselves on their terms and in ways not intended to be seen, or judged, by others.
The images highlight the importance of “seeing ourselves as we are”. Recent events from Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore reveal that stereotypical media depictions of African Americans continue unabated. These Polaroids remind us that there is a vivid history of Black visual self-representation that offers an eerily contemporary counter-narrative to mainstream distortion and erasure.
This narrative was not about how we would like to be validated by the public, but about who we are to us: Black people worthy of respect simply because we are human, not because there is an expectation to be respectable for the white gaze. These families were themselves in these photos. That was more than enough for them. It ought to be more than enough for us.
The fact that these images are now separated from the erstwhile owners makes one speculate about their potential fate. We don’t know what happened to the individuals but the power of their stories lives on. I’m publishing this collection from my archives to help preserve these stories. We may never fully grasp what these Polaroids originally meant. We can, however, feel inspired to reimagine what it means to see ourselves as we are. And what it means to be “enough”.