What is not there in family photo album: visual absence and production of counter narratives of motherhood

Jelena Šalaj

Keywords: domestic photography; family photo album; counter narrative; motherhood; private archive

Participation: presential

When we capture families in photographs, we often construct an idealized image. Conventional nature of family albums contributes to certain canonical narratives that emphasize “the bright side of life”: loving parents, smiling siblings, shared activities, celebration of peak-moments of family life.

The idea of this paper is inspired by contradiction between images and memories. It often seemed to me that my photographs tell different story of my motherhood than the story I’d rather tell verbally. This paper seeks to explore the gap between lived reality and ideal represented in family albums. Author continues the tradition of critical analysis of domestic photography started by Kuhn, Hirsch, Langford and others who worked on intersection of private and public history.

This paper addresses question how exploration of absence of certain things in family photo album could contribute to production of counter narrative of motherhood. Lacking or absent objects may vary from album to album and are depending on historical and cultural contexts. Author of this paper practices analogue photography for 15 years identifying herself as amateur photographer. This experience enables her to apply autoethnographic research strategy taking as an example her own photo-album where life of family with 4 kids is captured.

Researcher gives particular attention to several types of absence: 1) absence of photo-album itself as a physical object since digitalized photos are seldomly printed and available for shared review; 2) lack or absence of mother in images since she is the one standing behind the camera; 3) lack of negative moments (injures, moments of despair); 4) lack of objects belonging to public sphere (e.g., money, work, public institutions) since snaps are usually captured at familial spaces. For example, absence of photo album as physical object and lack of mother in the pictures reveals uneven power relations: mother who is responsible for taking photos and keeping family archive possesses symbolic power to construct family narrative repressing alternative stories. Absence of mother-photographer in pictures could be also interpreted as mother’s attempt to resist familial gaze and “shoot back” thus helping mothers to regain their subjectivity.

Through critical discussion of texts and close examination of different sources of information (private photo-archive, recollections, written pieces, photos captured by other family members, publicly available images) author demonstrates how broader re-contextualization of visual absence re-shapes narratives of motherhood.


Chalfen, R. (2012). Photogaffes: Family snapshots and social dilemmas. Indianapolis, Ind: Dog Ear Publ.
Hirsch, M., (2016). Family frames: Photography narrative and postmemory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, A. (2002). Family secrets: Acts of memory and imagination. London: Verso.
Langford, M. (2021). Suspended conversations: The afterlife of memory in photographic albums. McGill-Queen's University Press.
Marder, E (2012). Mother in the age of Mechanical Reproduction. Fordham University Press.


Jelena Šalaj has PhD in psychology and currently is employed as postdoctoral research fellow at Vilnius University working on the project “Contemporary Analogue Photography from the Perspective of Feminist Visual Studies”. Her research focuses on photography practices, gender equality and application of narrative inquiry methods to photography studies. Jelena is a lecturer at the Vilnius University where she teaches courses on qualitative research methods and aesthetics of photography.