Family photos of everyday milestones—marriage, childhood, a new car, a growing business—provide a visual portal for examining our roots. They also expose the surprising connections and provocative parallels of our past, informing our shared future. Family Pictures USA, a new WGBH series, unearths rich personal stories that expand understanding of our history, diversity and common values.
From the streets of Detroit to the shores of Southwest Florida to the farm fields of North Carolina, the hallmarks of a familiar and idealized “America” are being transformed. Show creator and host Thomas Allen Harris explores family photo albums and reimagines them as an integral part of our nation’s collective social and cultural history.
“I come from a family of photographers,” Harris said, “so using family photo albums to tell personal stories is something very dear to me.” Attending Harvard as an undergrad and majoring in biology, he was destined to be a doctor. But in his senior year, he took some photography courses and, inspired by the work of Emmy-winning Eyes on the Prize documentarian Henry Hampton, embarked on a career in filmmaking instead.
“As an artist, I see family photography as a form of folk art,” he said. “I wanted to create a new way to use the family photo album to save and preserve the photos of local personal stories and connect them with the official local history.”
Like NPR’s StoryCorps, Family Pictures USA guides participants through a personal narrative using photographs and images as the primary medium of the storytelling. Like Antiques Roadshow, the series travels to different locations across the country and uncovers little known and unusual personal stories, connecting them to a larger historical context.
In August, Family Pictures USA makes stops in three locations:
North Carolina (Mon, 8/12 at 9pm on WGBH 2) Learn how tobacco money transformed Durham from a sleepy small town into a prosperous city with a thriving African American middle class. Families long separated by race, religion and class are finding healing by recognizing their kinship, including descendants of the enslaved and slave owners.
Detroit (Tue, 8/13 at 8pm on WGBH 2) One of America’s most successful cities in 1960, Detroit’s rise, fall and rise again is revealed through personal photos and stories of the city’s proud inhabitants. This episode introduces descendants of both Native Americans and former slaves whose ancestors helped build the city.
Southwest Florida (Tue, 8/13 at 9pm on WGBH 2) Take a trip to Fort Myers and the Paradise Coast in Florida, where Native Americans, cattle ranchers, restaurateurs and fishing communities recount their family stories with pride. Descendants of Seminole leader Osceola and an African American family confront the divisions of the past.
In addition to filming the Family Pictures USA series, Harris began working with local public media stations to create half-hour companion pieces with people featured in North Carolina and Southwest Florida episodes, called Family Pictures NC (Fri, 8/23 at 8pm on WGBH World) and Family Pictures Southwest Florida (Fri, 8/23 at 8:30pm on WGBH World). “We take some stories with local themes, and the audience becomes part of the show,” he said. Each of these World Channel-exclusive programs offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the series and the people whose family stories are revealed.
“For the past 150 years, families have used the photo album to pass on their stories from one generation to the next,” said Harris, “but the stories and communities behind our photos are being lost. Once we started sharing things digitally, we stopped putting photos in albums,” he said. “So we have to work harder to keep and maintain the stories of our families and our communities.” Family Pictures USA strives to keep these stories alive and—by sharing them in new ways—remind us of our common roots and strengthen connections with our friends, families and neighbors.
Family Pictures USA premieres Monday, August 12 at 9pm on WGBH 2. Watch a preview below: