Framing Memory: Photography and Family Memories of Punjab

The language of photography and the language of memory are intimately connected. We narrate the stories of our lives in terms of snapshots, images and albums, and our photographs which are amongst our most treasured possessions. Photography is perhaps considered the most important vehicle for remembering in everyday life. This is why, in spring 2019, the Migrant Memory and Postcolonial Imagination Research Project (MMPI) ran a series of photography workshops for a group of Punjabi ladies who are first generation migrants to the UK. 

The aim of this collaboration was to offer participants the opportunity to develop their photographic skills and, through the process of playing around with cameras and the resulting images, to initiate conversations about their relationship with their local spaces and places over time. We wanted to know how this particular group of ladies saw themselves as belonging to a place, the ways in which this evolves over time, and the importance of places in the stories people tell about their lives. This is especially important where these stories involve experiences of migration and even twice migration from South Asia. 

We ran these workshops in collaboration with the Redbridge Labour Ilford South Women’s Forum at the Sikh Community Care Project in Ilford. The centre offers a space for Punjabi ladies to meet on Mondays, to socialise and to implement their wellbeing through music and singing, as well as to discuss and/or raise concerns within the community and to discuss health issues. 

The workshops were divided in two parts: in the first few sessions, under the leadership of photographer Kevin Ryan from the community arts organisation Charnwood Arts (@CharnwoodArts) in Loughborough, participants learned how to optimise the quality of images produced on their camera phones, and learned basic principles of photographic composition. This was such an important part of the project because it provided the Punjabi ladies with photography skills that they could use in community heritage activities and future visual arts projects. After a hesitant start, the ladies quickly picked up the techniques that Kev was demonstrating, having fun taking pictures of each other, then finding and documenting shapes outside in their local environment.  

The second part of the workshops focused on family photographs, which participants brought along to discuss their own family histories and their relationships to the places they lived. With a new critical perspective on photographs, their composition and their content, the ladies talked eloquently about the value and meaning of their personal images.  We brought both sets of images together (the ones taken in the first workshops and these family photographs) as a basis to talk about memories of migration and family memories of life in Punjab before and after Partition. Participants brought along beautiful family photographs, which documented their childhood, visits to India, and their lives before and after migration.  These photographs elicited personal memories of life in Punjab, as well as in East Africa, and of the early years in London. They led to participants drawing comparisons between personal experiences. For example, images from their school days prompted the ladies to discuss and draw parallels between their school experiences as they reminisced over their preferred subjects and extracurricular activities, among which were dancing, singing, and playing cricket. Photographs of East London promoted reflections on questions of identity and Britishness: the ladies all felt very proud of their Indian heritage, but at the same time, they are proud of calling themselves British Indian, as they all feel at home in the UK.

At the end of the project Kev created personalised photo albums for each participant that reflected their own personal stories.

We’re still reflecting on what we learned from this community project. It provided many different insights into the ways in which moving between places during the period of decolonisation are remembered, and their significance in people’s understanding of themselves and where they belong. What is clear, is that the Punjabi ladies all had rich personal photographic archives that weave together a coherent narrative of home, folding together the many places in which they belong and transcending the thousands of miles they have travelled.

You can follow MMPI’s journey on Twitter and find more information about their memory curation projects by clicking on each of the project posters below:

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