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Summary of Oksman’s “Mourning the Family Album”

Tahneer Oksman opens her article with a brief discussion about photos taken during one’s youth, arguing that youth is the earliest period in life where one is self-reflexive; as a result, this is the first time in life we can recognize photos of ourselves as idealized versions of those selves.

Oksman then moves on to summarize the work of others on photography and past selves, showing how old pictures of can fix (as in rigidify rather than repair) our ideas about our selves.

Mourning, as laid out in the work of Freud, involves a long period wherein one is obsessed with the dead (or “dead” past self in this case) before one can “get over it,” and photos of our past selves can cause us to mourn the death of not just our old self but of those who have actually died since the time the photo was taken. However, even though viewing photographs repeats a past that has been mourned, old photographs do not re-commence the mourning cycle when viewed again.

Next, Oksman recalls how Marianne Hirsch deconstructs the myth of the family through photography in Family Frames, using Hirsch’s work as a starting point for her own discussion of family photos and questioning monolithic ideas of “the family.”

Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is subsequently analyzed in order to show how narrative can allow family photos to be rewritten (though never entirely rewritten). Personal memories are often at odds with the family history presented in our family photo album(s), and Goldin’s text is lauded as an example of that which re-writes personal photographs in an attempt to change the narrative surrounding them; for example, the idea of sisterhood is redefined (by Goldin) as being based on shared experiences rather than on biology – sisterhood is not fixed for Goldin (her dead sister fixed in a photo album), but is in flux constantly for her depending on whom she currently sees (at the time of each photo in the text) as her sister(s).

Oksman then briefly discusses Jo Spence’s Putting Myself in the Picture, focussing on gender as it fixes one’s position in the traditional family, and Jan Oxenberg’s Thank You and Good-Night, explaining how the family is recreated by Oxenberg (as a means of mourning) using component pieces of her leftover original family after the death of her sister and grandmother.

The article concludes by claiming that past events in one’s life can be revised by willful re-immersion into the family that created the memory of the event, and that this can be a valid means of mourning.


Oksman, Tahneer. “Mourning the Family Album.” Auto/Biography Studies. 24.2 (2009): 235-248. Print.


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