"Photographs offer a prism through which to study the postmodern space of cultural memory composed of leftovers, debris, single items that are left to be collected and assembled in many ways, to tell a variety of stories, from a variety of often competing perspectives."[1]

- Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames

In Stafford, Kansas, where my grandparents farm, there is a community museum. It is the only place to see the history of that disappearing town, and I remember historical displays about dentistry and photography there, sliding racks of photographs of country schools. Bassinettes with donated baby dolls model a certain way to make one's life. In Stafford, one's nuclear family, the church, the farm co-op, are the social spaces in which one moves; babies, dentists, schoolchildren, farmers, girl and boy scouts, and ministers are recorded and represented in the museum's rooms. It is a picture of a community, made by that community many decades ago and, although I haven't visited now in years, I imagine it is still dustily there. It stands as a document of how the past Stafford-dwellers imagined themselves, a time-capsule for their grandchildren. What I remember especially is the pleasure it gave me to find images there of my grandparents and great-grandparents as young people. Their faces would peer out of class photographs, or the names of their family would appear on labels for certain displays. It was a museum that almost no one visited, but it was a place where I could find traces of my family, my past, and could understand something about where I came from, after we moved far away. Distance from (one kind of) home and (one notion of) family changes how you understand who you are, and where you locate your people. I think about how we choose what to hold on to, in this transitory state between places.

When the Museo de la Colonia China in Guatemala City opened in November, more than 900 people lined up to walk through the exhibition space. The lines to enter snaked through the building, and filled the halls. In two rooms, the museum looks to the construction of community, through its photographs and a few documents, placed alongside some objects--a large drum, a dragon costume for parades, a maquette of the building that houses the Colonia China. The building was built in the 1960s and expanded in the 1990s, but the museum is a new use of the second level, deep in the heart of the active community center. The exhibition's emphasis is on the community's documentation of itself, in photographs, charts and graphs, and newspaper clippings. A wall of pie charts and maps shows the distribution of Guatemala's Chinese community, by region and city, tracking its growth from the 1880s to the present. We are here, and we have been here for a long time, the information insists.

In a country where the Chinese community has, often by necessity, been wary of outsiders, the gesture of opening its doors to the public is a remarkable change in community practice. It is a gesture of hospitality and, simultaneously, an effort at self-definition. In her book about family photography and memory, Marianne Hirsch writes, "The point of discussing 'family' through the practice of photography is precisely to underline its contingency, to delineate the openness of its boundaries and the many factors, beyond biology, that underscore its definitional power. The 'family' is an affiliative group, and the affiliations that create it are constructed through various relational, cultural, and institutional processes--such as 'looking' and photography, for example."[2] If we draw out her description of family to include networks of families, the cultural center is the perfect example of an "affiliative group," a community that is defined by its social and emotional bonds or, at least, by a desire to create such bonds. One such bond is the insistence upon the fact of one's existence. Photographs, Roland Barthes teaches us, are not copies of reality, but emanate past realities, authenticate something that existed, indicate the time-space of that reality. He insists that this process is actually "a magic, not an art." I remember from the Stafford museum the magic of making eye contact with my young grandmother, and imagining that she could also see me. Time collapses.

This kind of museum makes evident the meeting point of private and public histories, and that meeting point is often described through photography. In the Museo de la Colonia China, photographs of family businesses, and of public celebrations line the walls. Mothers hold their children in textile stores, looking at the camera with a mixture of pride, happiness, and patience. Studio portraits of men and women from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are arranged in constellations, marked by their names. Group photographs of family reunions and school groups describe relationships. How do I explain, as an outsider, the importance of this kind of community definition, in a country where racism is endemic to daily conversation, where "chinito" is used not only to describe the staff of bodegas and to call out to food vendors who work the streets, but also appears in restaurant names: El Chinito Veloz is a fast-food Chinese restaurant a block from where I live, and its caricature of a Chinese man running to deliver a box of food could be a relic from U.S. anti-Asian propaganda of the 1940s.

"What are the relationships of looking and power, and how do the camera and the album intervene and mediate these relationships?" Hirsch asks.[3]

In the communities that I inhabit, most of my close friends and colleagues build their own hearths away from the place their families lived for generations before. We construct alternative families out of intentional relationships that are structured by other kinships: by shared work, love, friendship, experience, different kinds of knowledge. Which is to say: at least on the intimate level, we make our own worlds. Photography continues to determine much of how we interact; our Instagram accounts are laden with efforts at self-definition, at connection with this affective family, spread over long distances.

A large book with records from the Sociedad de Beneficencia China is opened to the page describing a young woman--she would have been 31 in 1933, we learn. She had three children and lived in the pueblo Colomba, in Quetzaltenango, the page tells us; she had a visible scar on her face, the document says. Two photographs--one frontal, the other from the side--show her delicate features, her New Woman bob, her elegant suit jacket. I see no scar, but I do imagine who she might have been, wonder where her children are now.

We touch the past through photography, even as photographs are imperfect documents. That's the point, though, isn't it? Between the things we know and the things we intuit is the space of understanding, of meeting someone else in their world, across time. I'm not sure we ever really know another person, or what they experience. Instead, we try to describe, to wrap our hands around what their lives must have been, with terms that are completely inadequate mistranslations. At our best, what we offer, then, is a kind of empathy and an effort to understand. Here I am, there you were: I see you.


[1] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1997), 13.

[2] Hirsch, Family Frames, 10.

[3] Hirsch, Family Frames, 12.