How do we read others’ stories? How do we tell our own?
Thomas Allen Harris speaks volumes on the power to create one’s own self image. His documentaries and digital media projects explore representations of family and identity, traveling deep through roots of American communities. The world-renowned artist, filmmaker, journalist, and activist, who has earned such honors as a Guggenheim Fellowship and a United States Artist Award, will teach two undergraduate courses this year at Yale.
This fall, Professor Harris is teaching a film theory course called “Family Narratives/Cultural Shifts” and a film production class called “Archive Aesthetics and Community Storytelling.” Throughout the academic year, the visiting professor hopes to bring his experience in community-engaged documentary to “inspire journeys” among students that “culminate in linkages” of their own.
When I spoke with Harris on the phone last week, he taught me his vision of what he calls “the American archive” — a living, breathing, changing force. Harris envisions millions of American family albums as pooled together in one collective historical document — the American family album.
“If I hadn’t become a filmmaker, I can just imagine, all of this material, hours and hours and hours of film and audio, boxes of images, slides and negatives, would be languishing in a basement somewhere. And for me, it’s led me to think of the archive as a kind of language,” Harris said. As Harris sees it, the American archive needs attention and nurturing, just as language skills do, to develop and thrive.
Though the artist was on a path to medical school after college, his documentaries narrate the reality of his early interest in the arts. Harris and his younger brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, were given cameras by their grandfather in their childhood. “He inspired all of the men in the family to take up the camera,” Harris said.
Photography, according to Harris, is a window through which one can “fashion the self.” Harris explained to me that he inherited an archive from his grandfather, who was tirelessly committed to the community church and to the documentation of their extended family. Harris’s grandfather used the camera to express himself creatively, and assumed a kind of position as the visual chronicler of the church. Harris’s grandfather passed his visual inclinations to Harris, who felt compelled to use the camera to “bolster communities.” Community, according to Harris, is a kind of family. The act of giving cameras to males in his family inspired Harris to represent his own image as it felt true to him, and to uncover secrets that lay in the American family album. He builds upon this original archive so that he might nurture other communities from it.
Harris told me that his studio is not far from his family’s church. As Harris extends outward to families abroad and families in America, his journeys always return to the family album he calls his own. He uses the personal as a springboard to jump towards the universal.
Harris narrates the experience of what he calls his “double vision” which he realized in early childhood in his film, “É Minha Cara/That’s My Face.” The film tracks the artist’s family heritage from roots in New York City to East Africa to Brazil. In one eye, he sees reality, and in the other he sees shapes and colors which inform his artistic choices. He tells me that everyone has this artistic double vision.
After taking a photography and a writing course in his senior year at Harvard, Harris applied for a grant to study immigrant families in Holland and France. “I didn’t know then that I was going to be pulled so strongly in the direction of film and media and become a maker,” said Harris. But after that experience of engaging with communities through art, Harris told me: “I felt the pull.” Harris tended to the muse — he decided to continue down the film path as he applied to film school and got a job at 321 Contact Children’s Television Workshop, making science based documentaries for children and working as a photographer at the same time.
For Harris, the nonfiction route felt natural: “I just kind of fell into the nonfiction format … Even though I do nonfiction documentary, it’s really strongly influenced by poetry and a kind of creative interpretation of nonfiction, which I find incredibly freeing and kind of liberatory with regard to self expression and [for] communities to journey with me in the path of creating, making these types of work and allowing for social change to occur in a process,” Harris said.
Harris reached a point in his career where he realized he needed to start making much more personal art. He then started studying under the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and engaged in more experimental work.
Harris came out with his first feature documentary in 1995, a film called “Vintage Families of Value.” The film, in keeping with Harris’ goals to unearth family truths, profiles African American families through the lens of queer siblings.
And more recently in 2014, Harris produced and directed “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” which takes the viewer through family albums, highlighting photos and narratives that they may be used for social change. Harris unearths patterns of self-affirmation and negation, which he feels to be the two legacies of the photograph. As modern subjects hold up old print family photos or photos from their iPhones, Harris believes one can see the secrets in every family, and upon closer inspection, those which remain “willfully unseen.”
Harris sees the family album archive as a battleground of images which have historically disenfranchised individuals who have faced discrimination.
“A hallmark of my work is that the content determines the form,” says Harris, who creatively interprets communities which form new communities in and of themselves.
In his work, Harris strives to understand his ancestors and their journeys.
Nicholas Forster, who joined the combined program of African American Studies and Film Studies at Yale in 2012, will be the teaching fellow for Harris’ classes. Forster met Thomas Allen Harris in January of 2016, when Forster studied in a workshop Harris taught on his concept of the digital family diaspora. When Forster spoke of the first day of the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion workshop, he told me that “a torrent of snow storms” that fell on New Haven that day gave the workshop “more of an intimate feeling.” Harris instructed Forster and other students as they “participated in trying to chart the story of a family.”
In his own project under Harris, Forster explored the concept of family mythology. He worked with photographs and his own writings about the realization late in life that he had not known his grandfather’s face before facial reconstruction surgery. He studied how information is transferred and withheld through family generations.
Forster, who will work as a teaching fellow to Harris’ courses, hopes that students will “learn what it means to tell one’s own story through different mediums” in a way which is “accountable and authentic and also heavily informed by that which is outside of oneself.” In the words of Forster, Harris helps students to walk down “the boundary between the self and the others.”
Harris continues to direct and produce his documentary-style television show, “Family Pictures USA,” that studies family and community connections. Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, the multimedia community engagement project, uses the family photo as a prop to engage communities in participatory storytelling.
How far can the family photo reach? How deeply does the American archive run? How can the historically disenfranchised harness power through visual representation? How can we reinvent ourselves throughout the course of history?
Harris has dedicated his life to studying these questions. And this year, he will lead a group of Yale students to explore these quandaries in their own lives and through their own works of art.
Annie Nields | firstname.lastname@example.org