arts

This peculiar photography project reimagines family portraits

Updated 16th August 2019
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Credit: Rie Yamada
This peculiar photography project reimagines family portraits
Written by Emiko Jozuka, CNNHong Kong
Photography has evolved immeasurably since its inception in the 1800s.
Images can now be snapped on smart phones and shared instantly on social media. This transition has undermined the existence of the family album, as memories exist more so in the cloud, than on paper.
In her new project, "Familie Werden" (Becoming Family), Japanese photographer Rie Yamada seeks to rekindle the value and meaning behind the family album for the modern age.
She does so by painstakingly reconstructing images from 10 family albums salvaged from stalls and online stores in Germany and Japan. Each photo features the photographer herself, disguised as family members, from an elderly man to a young mother to a child on the beach.
"I felt like I knew these people because I'd been through the photographs hundreds of times. I wanted to understand them more," Yamada said in a phone interview.
The result is a trip back in time that taps the sense of joy and humor found within the pages of old family albums.

From flea markets to auction houses

The photographer studied how old photographic albums were used to convey unity and bond between family members.
The photographer studied how old photographic albums were used to convey unity and bond between family members. Credit: Rie Yamada
Yamada first thought of her visual project while undertaking a bachelors degree in arts in Berlin, Germany. There, she studied how old photographic albums were used to convey the unity and bond between family members.
She soon found herself hunting for real albums at flea markets in Germany, where she now lives, and at online auctions in Japan.
"I wanted to capture the stories of two cultures, and I wanted to find out about it from people I didn't know," said Yamada. "You can't just sum up families, they have a lot of patterns."
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Yamada reconstructed images from 10 family albums she salvaged from stalls and online shops in Germany and Japan. Credit: Rie Yamada
Yamada selected albums from the 1940s to the 1990s, each with 100 or more photographs so she could get to know more about the family and delve deeper into their visual narratives.
Forgotten artifacts like an airplane ticket left in an East German album revealed one family's beach holiday in Bulgaria. Another showed a vintage magazine published two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, suggesting the family's album dated from that era.
Yamada chose her images carefully, selecting ones where people were posing, aware of the camera, and actively conveying the sense that they were a family unit.
Before staging each scene, either in a studio or outside, Yamada made sure she understood the image within the broader context of the family's life as revealed in the album.
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Yamada selected albums from the 1940s to the 1990s, each with 100 or more photographs so she could get to know more about the family. Credit: Rie Yamada
She initially thought of using models to pose as each family member, but was worried they would need too much direction and be unable to grasp the context. "As I'm using other people's stories and their privacy, I didn't want to misrepresent them," she said.
That's why Yamada chose to use props, disguises, and creative editing to play the role of the characters herself.

Playing each family member

The process of becoming someone else is no easy feat.
Just like an actor preparing for a scene, Yamada studied each family members' facial expressions, clothing and the objects around them. She scoured vintage clothing shops and even went to a library to locate a specific magazine article from the 1990s that she could use as a prop. When similar items could not be found, she made them herself.
One of her favorite images is of an elderly couple in colorful clothes who are smiling as they playfully pose with parrots.
"I thought this couple were retired and on holiday together," said Yamada. She speculates the photo was treasured by the couple as it showed signs of having been cut out and framed. "It must have been a great memory for them."
Usually, each photograph takes a day to stage and shoot, but this one, said Yamada, took two.
Yamada studied each family members' facial expressions, clothing and the objects around them.
Yamada studied each family members' facial expressions, clothing and the objects around them. Credit: Rie Yamada
She used stuffed parrots instead of live ones, and initially had difficulty balancing them on her head while capturing the right facial expressions. "I wasn't satisfied with my facial expressions -- I could see too much of myself in the first set of photographs, so it felt like I wasn't doing justice to those family members," she said.
Yamada shoots each photograph herself and usually has another person on standby to help.
It takes her around a day to edit each of the images on Photoshop, as she has to layer multiple people within a single frame. While important, the editing process is a lesser priority for Yamada who focuses on perfecting the characters, locations and props.

Creating new stories

The images come together in an exhibition that gives the audience an opportunity to compare them to the original photos.
Perhaps anticipating questions about who the people are and where they come from, Yamada has created an extra layer of detail, commissioning writers from Japan and Germany to imagine the characters' lives.
The photographer used props, disguises and creative editing to play the role of the characters in each photo.
The photographer used props, disguises and creative editing to play the role of the characters in each photo. Credit: Rie Yamada
In one photo set in Japan, Yamada portrays a husband in a checkered yellow and black jacket posing with his wife and their baby. The writer looked at the trends at the time and decided that it was the man's second marriage and the couple had met in one of Tokyo's jazz cafes. "I could totally see how believable that story was," said Yamada.
The stories are displayed with a physical album to take visitors back to a time when treasured photos were printed and lovingly curated.
Yamada says visitors thumbed through the albums and felt nostalgic towards the periods and characters she portrayed. Some even said they had been inspired to take their own family photographs.
"I think the photo albums reaffirm the existence of a family," said Yamada. "Maybe the stories for these families have ended, but if it triggered new stories, I'm happy."
"Familie Werden" is on display at the Museum for Photography in Berlin, Germany until 25 August, 2019.