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What do old family photographs tell us about the history of women?

The dialogue with a woman about her family photographs can help us understand the socio-political setting of bygone eras.

February 5, 2016 12:32:16 pm

Writing the history of people who have traditionally not been seen as important can be challenging because of the lack of evidence. This is especially true for women when one attempts to understand their socio-political evolution. Until the 1970s, archives- the conventional sources of records for historians, contained very little information about the lives of women.

Canadian born historian, Geraldine Forbes, uses women’s family photographs as documents to write about the history of Indian women. Her methodology involves interviewing women about what they recollect when looking at old family photographs. She encourages them to talk about events surrounding the moment at which the photograph was taken and about other family members present in an effort to understand the social environment of the period.

“I started visiting women I had read about in newspapers. On many occasions they would say the only document they had of that period was a photograph.”

Picture taken by Nag and Sons. C. 1930. This is the daughter of Soroma and B.R. Sen. Her mother died very young and she was greatly loved by her father as is evident from the way he showered her with toys without concern of gender appropriateness. (Photo: Forbes) Photo taken by Nag and Sons. C. 1930. This is the daughter of Soroma and BR Sen. Her mother died very young and she was greatly loved by her father as is evident from the way he showered her with toys without concern of gender appropriateness. (Photo courtesy: Forbes)

What a woman had to say about her family photographs would reveal details of her life experiences which would never be evident from written sources.

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“The problem with writing women’s history has been that women have not been involved in the kind of activities as men. If women were involved in political activities then it is easier to find written materials about them. However, it is very difficult to write about their lived experiences. In India especially, where the family is such an important unit of society, family photographs opened a new door to understanding the life experiences of women.” said Forbes.

(Also read: Chronicling the lives of ‘Maharanis’ through photographs)

The historian who is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emertia at State University of New York, Oswego, researches and writes about the history of women in colonial India.

Photo by Amir Hossin , Rampur Hut, E.I. Railway. Loopline, Bengal. C.1925 In front are Soroma, Governor Jackson, and Soroma’s husband B.R. Sen Before this ceremony, Soroma’s husband  told her what she was to say to Jackson – statistics about the area, etc. She told Jackson all she had been prompted to say, then added now we can have a discussion of our own. The photo illustrates the new roles taken on by women married to men in civil service positions. (Photo courtesy: Forbes) Photo by Amir Hossin , Rampur Hut, E.I. Railway. Loopline, Bengal. C.1925. Sitting for a photograph are Soroma, Governor Jackson, and Soroma’s husband BR Sen. Before this ceremony, Soroma’s husband  told her what she was to say to Jackson. When she met Jackson, she told him all she had been prompted to say, then added, ” now we can have a discussion of our own.” The photo illustrates the new roles taken on by women married to men in civil service positions. (Photo courtesy: Forbes)

Forbes pointed out to some important differences between the way boys and girls were photographed by their families.

“In photos from the late nineteenth century, a lot of families had photographs that would tell the life story of a male. Males would be photographed at each stage of their lives: birth, boyhood, youth, householder and retiree. The story of women’s lives in photographs were often truncated. It was rare to find a picture of a baby girl. The first picture generally taken was just before marriage, and the second one would be with a child,” said Forbes. “However, some families began to think differently about their daughters from the early twentieth century. One finds families who photographed their daughters with the same frequency as they photographed their sons.”

She talked about her interaction with Krishnabai Rau, then in her 70s. Rau recollected her family pressure to pose for a “showing photo” in order to find a suitable groom for her. She resisted by trying to look as mean as possible for the picture.

Photo taken by Das Brothers Studio, C. 1923; showing picture of Krishnabai Rau. Photo taken by Das Brothers Studio, C. 1923; showing picture of Krishnabai Rau.

By this time Rau had been fighting for social causes for most of her life. She was a Gandhian, had gone to jail and she was always politically active. “She was conscious of the fact that she was giving details about the photograph to someone who would be writing her history. Perhaps she was recounting that she had been a fighter since her teenage years and she wanted to be remembered as a bold person. Or, she may have actually tried to look mean to dissuade suitors,” said Forbes.

Pictures alone can never tell the complete story of women’s experiences. Forbes based her analysis upon text documents as well as photographs and the memories that women have of them. Forbes is aware that what a person remembers when she sees a photograph is dependent on many factors including how the individual views her life and accomplishments.

What a woman remembered about her photographs was also influenced by the interviewer. “Everyone explains her life differently to different people. The women I talked to knew I was a foreigner. I am sure they told me different things than they would tell their granddaughters.”

Comparing family photographs in the West to those in India, Forbes said that there are some similarities in the way people posed for photographs globally. However, in Indian photographs there is almost never any joking around. “It is hard to say what this tells us about social structure in nineteenth century India. It might be stricter norms or perhaps people believed photographs should be serious.”

In most family photographs of the time, men are standing. People often believe this to be reflective of patriarchy. “But that might not be the case. It might just be the photographer’s decision.” One of the things that one learns from listening to women tell their photographs is how they think about their lives.

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