May 31, 2009

Digital Diaspora Family Reunion: A New Kind of Geneology

Thomas Allen Harris has spent much of his filmmaking career employing his personal family photo archives in his documentaries as a means to look at larger themes such as identity and religion (That's My Face/é Minha Cara), gay and lesbian issues (Vintage--Families of Value) and apartheid (The Twelve Disciples Of Nelson Mandela). His latest project, the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR), aims to use the power of interactive media to create a movement to get African-Americans to reconsider and revalue their family photo collections.

The DDFR project centers around a multimedia portal with an interactive mapping interface that showcases African Diasporic photography across time, place and genre. Users will be able to upload photos, video, audio and text to document and share their family stories. Online tools such as blogs, webinars and social networks will drive users to the site, complemented by on-the-ground activities. The portal aims to be a comprehensive repository for images and media of people of African descent over the last 160 years.

The inspiration for DDFR came to Harris after he attended a "When Content Meets Intent" workshop run by Judith Helfand and Robert West's Working Films for the Media Arts Fellows at Renew Media  (now the Tribeca Film Institute), and participated in the National Black Programming Consortium's (NBPC) New Media Institute in 2008. "I began thinking about ways to create a multimedia project that would do for the everyday person what I do with my films," Harris explains. He continued to develop the concept at The Producers Institute for New Media Technologies at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC).

According to Harris, very few institutions collected photos of African-Americans prior to 1960; therefore there is a serious lack of public images of people of African descent. The limited prints that have made it into the public eye tend to reinforce stereotypes, as opposed to providing a visual sampling of the diversity of the African-American experience. 

"Where do you find earlier images of and by African-American photographers?" asks Harris. "I imagined they were in people's archives. I thought, I have this treasure trove [of pictures] in my family, others must have a treasure trove in their families."

One of the ways that Harris plans to find his way to these photographic pots of gold is through an innovative outreach program that uses a touring Antiques Roadshow model. With Harris as a host, the DDFR team will go into communities and bring people together at events to publicly share their photographs, videos and stories. Their media will be digitized on-site and uploaded, and the "DDFR Roadshow" itself will be filmed, thus creating more content for the site.

Harris and his team tested out the DDFR Roadshow in Atlanta this past February at the Integrated Media Association's (IMA) Public Media Conference. Harris projected scans of the photographs that people had brought to the event, and audience members reacted with their own insights and observations. He also showed clips from his latest film, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. The film explores how African-American communities have used the medium of photography to construct political, aesthetic and cultural representations of themselves and their world. 

IMA Executive Director Mark Fuerst asked Harris to try out the pilot program for the DDFR Roadshow at the IMA Conference because of Harris' solid plans for combining old and new media, and the potential that DDFR has for emotional impact. "There's so much talk about what Obama did with social media, but not as much careful analysis about how much emotion everyone felt about electing the first Black President," says Fuerst. "Obama's team was very skillful, but their success wasn't a matter of technique: the emotion supported the social media. Bringing that back to Thomas, he is tapping into a powerful vein of family and social history. That emotion may give him the fuel he needs to drive this process."

For Harris, the experience in Atlanta was both satisfying and surprising. One of the most gratifying moments in Atlanta occurred when a man came in with photos of his grandfather in military dress. The uniform had insignias on it, but the man wasn't sure what they stood for. There happened to be an audience member who had had a military career and knew that the symbols meant the grandfather was part of the African-American brigade.

"The audience had the information--not one of our experts," Harris notes. "I realized that this kind of event and project truly creates an extended family. I think that is what's going to happen on the Web."

Harris is currently seeking funding to continue development of the portal, and hopes to launch later this summer. DDFR Roadshow events are currently planned for HotDocs in May and SilverDocs in June.

For more on the Digital Diapospora Family Reunion, click here. For a February 23, 2011 New York Times article about the project, click here.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.