Photographs by: Katja Torn
RELATED PICTURES – AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PHOTOGRAPHS AS SITES OF ENGAGEMENT FOR INDIVIDUALS, COMMUNITIES AND CULTURES
ABSTRACT (DOCTORAL THESIS, LAPLAND UNIVERSITY PRESS 2008)
Autobiographical photographs embody the values, norms and attitudes of individuals, families, their surroundings and communities – ways of thinking and acting that have become etched in the memories of generations. Photographs also bear more mundane meanings, which we easily overlook but which have a profound impact on what we consider to be worth remembering and telling to others.
The thesis examines album photographs, family portraits and self-portrait photographs, as well as the ways of narrating and presenting the self that such images enable. The material for the study comprises autobiographical photographs and interviews of female art students born between 1975 and 1980; the interviews were based on images the students had selected from their personal collections under the heading “Me”. Of particular interest in the research are the self-definitions of the narrators that are constructed in the photographs and the interviews and the purposes that the photographs serve in the autobiographical context.
The self-definitions princess and tomboy, average and not-so-average Finn, spinster, Daddy’s girl and dormitory town child, as well as the associated photographs, reveal gendered meanings and positions that determine not only the cultural image of women but also young women’s conceptions of themselves. The research shows the power of such images – in producing what is deemed an ideal representation of gender and the body, in the meanings associated with Finnishness and in the socially accepted forms of sexuality. The analysis also takes up the relationship between photographs and remembering, and the significance of place, childhood and different communities in women’s identity projects.
Album photographs and family portraits expose internal (power) relationships, reveal the forms of community and allow for variations of the concept of the family. For their part, photographic self-portraits become spaces that enable the presentation of self to be visualised on one’s own terms. The research shows that photographs are used in negotiating, shaping and regulating identities and communities and in constructing personal and public memories. The study also illustrates distinctive features of autobiographical photographs whereby they both impose cultural and social norms and reveal deviations from them. At the same time as the photographs present narratives that adhere to the general repertoire of stories and are socially acceptable, they also draw out social taboos and alternative narratives.
The thesis can be situated within the fields of visual studies, feminist visual studies and narrative research. The work draws on post-structuralist feminist theories as well as the debate in British and American photography, and in this context elaborates a way of reading autobiographical photographs.
Keywords: photography, autobiography, narrativity, visual studies, gender studies, subjectivity