This practice-based PhD thesis investigates photographic family archives and makes critical interpretations of them using performance photography. The two family’s albums contain hundreds of photographs that belonged to my grandparents and represent a period in Portugal’s past (1940-1975) scarred by one of the longest dictatorships in history. The research carries out an ‘iconographic’ analysis of the photographs in the family albums and focuses specifically on images of (my) two grandmothers. As representatives of two women’s lives during this historical period, both women lived under the same dictatorial regime, but one on mainland Portugal and the other in the Portuguese overseas and colonial territories (India, 1951-61 and Mozambique 1962-75). With the end of the regime, these images have been passed down in the form of the identity of women in Portugal to this day, including my own.
The key questions of the research thus deal with self-representation, performance and the use of family photographic archives as a method of investigating the processes of identity formation. The thesis draws on cultural theory, including the sociology of family photography, archive fever, cultural memory, postmemory, and representations of femininity and feminism, alongside practices of performance. Relevant authors include Marianne Hirsch, Annette Kuhn, Jacques Derrida, Okwui Enwezor, Anne Whitehead, Hal Foster, Stuart Hall, Joan Riviere and Amelia Jones.
The research questions examine four key questions: (i) how can family archives be read as ‘documents’ in relation to social and historical regimes; (ii) how can family photographs be read along official imagery of the regime; (iii) how have other artists developed strategies for questions of inherited family images; and (iv) how can performance photography be used as a practice method for the critical interpretation of archives?
These questions and approaches are contextualised by a study of photographic archives, self-portraiture and performance practices including strategies developed by Portuguese artists.
A separate iconographic index of the family albums photographs was created to help identify certain specific repeated embodied elements, such as pose and gesture, which were subsequently re-performed for the camera. The different family albums reveal specific social and cultural differences: the specificity of their diverse settings results in distinct family images. The information contained within the archive images is re-written within the performance images. The practice aspect of the thesis has developed a precise performative method for interpreting and enacting the archives.
The thesis contributes contribution to knowledge not only by relating specifically to the questions of family, photography and Portuguese history, but has also by developing a method that other photographers and artist can apply to their own performance and family archive work.