Now and Then: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s To Majority Minority
A bride emerges from the back seat of a vintage car, or to be completely accurate, her gown emerges as the young woman wearing it holds back a little, smiling shyly at the photographer. As she sits there, the young woman slowly ages, her gown now a casual blouse and Capri pants and her smile grown confident with age.
But now another figure appears, perched in the same car, in the same seat. On a guess, I’d put her in her 20s, and on another guess, I’d say she’s the bride’s daughter, pictured at about the same age as her mother on her wedding day.
The daughter, too, is replaced by an even younger generation — a girl (the granddaughter?) at the start of adolescence.
This sequence is from Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s To Majority Minority series of photo-animations that “explore the generational transitions from immigrant to native-born within immigrant families,” as Matthew explains in her artist’s statement. The people depicted have come to the U.S. from around the world — Mexico, Vietnam, Laos, Iran, Bangladesh, Japan.
To construct her photo-animations, Matthew meets with immigrant families to hear their stories and pore over old family albums with them. Using one image as a template, she directs family members to reenact the original scene. She then creates short videos that start in the past but slowly morph into the present day. And as though to illustrate the lingering presence of the home country in these families’ lives, the images, too, toggle back and forth between then and now.
This particular family traces its roots to Mexico, as we learn in the text that follows the sequence of photographs. Originally from Mexicali, the young bride/family matriarch came to the United States to marry her sweetheart who “came over” in 1956. In the U.S., she raised six children with her husband, Victor. “I love everything about the United States,” she tells us. “I don’t regret moving.”
“The America of yesterday filled with immigrants of European descent is giving way,” Matthew writes, “to a new multi-colored and multicultural America. By 2050 ‘minority’ populations in the U.S. will become the majority of the population. In this new multi-colored America, we need to reframe our understanding of our newest immigrants in terms of their cultures, religions and stories.”
With the news dominated by ICE raids, the threat to DACA, and “the Wall,” To Majority Minority can be read as belonging primarily to current events. And Matthew’s own intentions — “the final portrait animation,” she tells us, “helps us empathize with these new Americans beyond the stereotype of the family at Ellis Island or the presumed terrorist” — underscore that interpretation.
And taken as a whole, the collection does indeed make an argument grounded in history and demographics and ideologies and, yes, our current venomous political debate about immigration. Yet a strictly political reading does a disservice to these images, for such an understanding does not fully encompass what is so poignant in them.
For considered individually — thoughtfully seen and carefully studied — each animation takes on a private meaning. It is through that seeing and that studying that the viewer may well experience one of a photograph’s more mysterious attributes: what Roland Barthes famously termed the punctum.
“The spectacle interests me,” writes Barthes of another vintage family photograph, “but does not prick me. What does, strange to say, is the belt worn low by the sister (or daughter).… This particular punctum arouses great sympathy in me, almost a kind of tenderness.”
For Barthes, the punctum was that “element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…, that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” It is the telling, unpredictable detail, something as inconsequential as a belt or a string of pearls, that catches your eye and breaks your heart.
The source photographs of To Majority Minority are ripe for such encounters, as is the text that flows into the animations midway through their unfolding. Both can conjure up a life.
The images that serve as the basis for Matthew’s animations are, like so many family photographs, full of inconsequential detail. Generally taken without much concern for mise-en-scène, the typical family snapshot is a personal artifact that immortalizes the photographer’s loved ones. The idea is not to make an aesthetic object, but rather to catch the bride as she steps out of the car, to capture the kids sitting on the steps, to preserve the moment.
But what arouse my sympathies most deeply in these images are the incidentals, the small gestures, the intrusions of the ordinary. The hand that opens the door for the young Mexican bride, the scrunched-up socks worn by the lederhosen-clad Iranian child, even (with a nod to Barthes) the pearl necklaces that recur across time and space. (I found at least four of them, worn by Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese women.)
The overarching narratives here belong to the coded realm of Barthes’ studium (the manifest meaning, which belongs to history and culture). Some are the familiar stories of exile with their oft-told longings and hardships: one Iranian tells us, “I have no home,” and another that, in the five years after leaving in 1979, she and her family moved eight times between three different countries.
Others read like the stories Americans are so fond of telling themselves about the immigrant experience, tales of liberty, independence, and achievement. The Bangladeshi woman who came to the U.S. through the Diversity Immigration Visa Program is exultant: “I have FREEDOM here. I can do whatever I want.” The Hmong woman honor-bound to marry the man who’s given her a ride in his car nevertheless vows “to get an education and be self-sufficient.”
If all that this series had on offer were stories of exile and sagas of wanderers, it would certainly be timely, of great general interest, an important addition to our current discourse, but would be telling us something that we already know — or think we do.
More affecting for me, is the story told by the Vietnamese family who fled the week before Saigon fell and spent a month at California’s Camp Pendleton in Tent #88. That the narrator recalls, more than 40 years later, her tent number slays me.
“However lightning-like it may be,” Barthes writes, “the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion.”
Then and Now
Photographs, by their nature, engage in time travel: look at any snapshot and you are looking into a present time now past. In this work and others where she has used her photo-animation technique, Matthew complicates the matter.
Here, people travel freely through time. The ghosts of the present slip into the past to haunt family photographs from the century before; younger selves morph into their older bodies; mothers and daughters, fathers and sons trade places.
This is yet another aspect of Matthew’s work that both transcends, and speaks to, our fraught political moment. Like the use of old family snapshots, this time-traveling device presents the human drama, one that should resonate in the vast majority of American households.
These works tell the epic American saga of family lineage progressing across time and renewing the nation. But this is an epic written on an intimate scale. Here are particular people, parents and grandparents, who for their own particular reason — war, poverty, love — left their homeland to make a life in the United States. They have brought with them something of a past that gently haunts their progeny: the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters now thoroughly modern Americans.
For me, watching as one generation passes into the next, as those who were once young age into their older selves, Matthew’s work speaks to far more than our current fraught moment. The slow fade from a spectral past to the present tense (and back again) enacts time’s passage and its promise of mortality, and the political argument becomes a byproduct of a deeper, more human tale — one that, taken to heart, might help tame our passions and humble us all.
Nancy Brokaw is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in photography criticism. She has contributed articles to The Photo Review, Photographers International, Art India, and others.