Our Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Road Show | Project HOME

Our Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Road Show

Under each photo is a hidden story, and Thomas Allen Harris got us to tell them.

Here at Project HOME, we know the power of stories. Telling our stories to one another has healed us. And last month, we did it in a powerful way at the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs.

The spark of our gathering was filmmaker and educator Thomas Allen Harris, who deeply understands the powerful history evoked by photographs. He also feels urgently the need to preserve the photographs of the diaspora community of African people scattered worldwide, as well as those of other groups whose images are scarce and not well preserved.

The center prepared for Harris’s onsite visit by offering three screenings of his latest film, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, a 2014 documentary about the history of largely unknown black photographers who used the lens as a catalyst for social change. Harris makes the powerful point that true freedom is directly related to the power of creating one’s own self-image rather than accepting the images of others. (The film is based on the book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, by Deborah Willis). The film celebrates hundreds of beautiful and powerful images taken by (and of) Black Americans—portraits, candids, movement photos, and historical moments.

One cold evening last February, the Project Home community—neighbors, residents, staff, and friends—entered that flow of history at our own outpost of the “Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Road Show.” Present was everything you have at any good family reunion—good food, great music, and plenty of stories. But Harris, disarming, gentle, and funny, added an extra twist. He asked us all to bring photographs: black-and-white photos from the family album, polaroids stuck in Aunt Mary’s china closet, or shots taken on the fly on a smart phone. Harris and his team coaxed them out, threw each one up on the stage on a big screen, and invited the contributor to tell about it, teasing the stories out of us with curious observations and questions.

At first speakers were reticent (after all, there was the being-on-stage part….), but Thomas Harris put us all at ease, and then the stories came. About a friend’s birthday party, an outing to the speakeasy, a brother, a family portrait. About the hidden history that lay outside the borders of the photo.

Someone demonstrated a 60s dance move. Another helped us imagine riding in his uncle’s car. Looking at the photos, memories poured out. People who came intending to just listen found themselves grabbing their phone to put images on the screen and join the conversation.

It’s all part of the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR), which urges individuals to explore the rich historical narratives found in their own family photograph collections as a way to discover everyday community and family heroes. The reunion has been to over twenty communities throughout the country. The generous support of Lynne and Harold Honickman, who were there telling stories, made it possible to host it in our neighborhood.

It was a rich night. We all left with the stories shining in our pockets, like remembrance; like courage.