What Does Your Family Look Like?
This is the question on the minds of participants in the Newhouse School’s project Family. Life. So far, the project comprises over 2,000 photos, by students from 34 schools in 14 countries. The Polarr team spoke with Director Andrea Wise about the project’s origins and challenges. If you haven’t already, we suggest heading over to Family. Life.’s website — it’s positively labyrinthine and well worth getting lost in.
Emily: After clicking around the website, the scope of the project seems enormous. Can you please describe its concept for our readers?
Andrea: The concept of “Family. Life.” was to revisit Edward Steichen’s 1955 photography project “The Family of Man” in a contemporary way — both in terms of how to interpret “family,” as well as in terms of how to tell those stories.
Whereas “The Family of Man” was entirely comprised of still documentary photographs, “Family. Life.” includes both still and motion projects ranging from documentary/non-fiction approaches to portraiture and fine art approaches — entirely by students.
E: How did the idea for the project arise?
A: The idea was my mentor’s, Mike Davis. He is the Alexia Tsairis Chair of Documentary Photography at Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where I was a graduate student.
Part of his role with the Alexia Foundation is to create opportunities for work to be made that might otherwise not exist.
The Newhouse school has an annual fall workshop in which all students in the Multimedia Photography and Design (MPD) department produce bodies of work during one weekend in October while they are coached by working professionals in the industry.
For the past several years, Mike and Bruce Strong, the MPD Department Chair, have focused the fall workshop around stories about family, with more specific themes year by year, so Mike wanted to try to apply that model on a global scale.
E: The broad umbrella is ‘family life,’ but there are many other themes that work is filed under (agony, beginnings, remembrance, youth, etc.) How did those crystallize?
A: The themes on the website arose organically from the work, but the idea to categorize the work thematically for the website came from the design students who were involved in the project.
Like the annual fall workshop for visual storytelling, last year we had a design workshop to work the design for the website, book, promotional materials, and more.
The MPD department brought in professional designers to coach students, who worked in various teams. It was quite a challenge for the designers because at that point, we had not yet received the work. So the idea for this website navigation by theme came out of that workshop, but then once we’d received the work for this project, we chose the specific themes based on the themes that we saw in the work.
E: You have participating artists in 14 different countries, from many more photography schools. How did you choose which places to approach?
A: We approached just about everyone we could think of. Fortunately between the Alexia Foundation, the Newhouse School, and our wonderful project partners (PhotoShelter, ASMP and PDN) we were able to cover a lot of ground. Mike and I had a world map in the hallway outside his office at Newhouse where we placed pins to mark each region of the world we had represented.
Then we worked to try to target the least represented regions of the world. But it was difficult, particularly because many regions of the world don’t have the same concentrations of photography programs as in the United States and Europe.
As a result, while this project certainly has enormous reach, there are huge portions of the world, and particularly of the developing world, that are not represented, despite our best efforts to reach them.
E: Do you have any plans for expansion?
A: Right now we’re still working on finishing up this iteration of the project! We’ve just recently secured a generous grant from PhotoWings which has allowed us to print an initial run of the book so next month we should receive those and be able to start mailing out copies of the book to all contributing schools.
After that we’re working on securing a publisher to handle publication so we can make the book available to the public at an affordable price point.
E: Did you have any difficulty approaching artists in other countries for contributing to a US-based project?
A: We didn’t actually encounter any political or bureaucratic hurdles for this project. I think it helped that this was an educational endeavor and that we were soliciting participation from other photography schools.
E: Were you particularly surprised by any of the submissions? Did any subvert your expectations in interesting ways?
A: It was really a delight to receive the work and to begin to see how all these different students interpreted the theme. They were surprising in a really wonderful way.
One student, Aaron Bell from the Belfast School of Art at Ulster University made portraits of various trees that had been planted in remembrance of a loved one or life event. It was also very moving to see how many students chose to photograph their own families.
Some of the other powerful stories include Deborah Hughes Mulcahy of St. Kevin’s College in Ireland’s autobiographical project about struggling with infertility as well as Mathias Svold and Petra Theibel Jacobsen of the Danish School of Media and Journalism’s project about someone who makes reborn dolls and a young woman who has one such doll who she cares for as though it were her own child.