THE TRANSNATIONAL FAMILY PORTRAIT
Digital technology has afforded me the ability to communicate with family whose contact used to be extremely limited. As a child of the military, my Father was out to sea for half of the year, so most of our our communication happened over the phone. I remember the weird feeling that I would have when he came home. I knew he was my Dad, but because I didn’t see him regularly, it would be strange having him back in the house. In the eighties, before Smartphones were readily accessible, the development of our relationship was directly related to how often we could speak over the phone. Overseas calls were not cheap, which often made our conversations quick and rushed. I shared similar experiences when speaking to my grandparents.
Growing up, first generation Filipino-American, the only times I really spoke to my Grandparents were when they came to visit me in the U.S. Which was maybe once every other year, more than many Filipino families I know. On the phone, connection and language barriers would make it difficult to get further than surface level conversation. I wouldn’t get much more than a “Hi Lola, I love you and I miss you.” but for transnational families you learn to live with good enough. For years, our relationship would carry on like this,until 2014 when I traveled to the Philippines for the first time. After the death of my grandfather, I promised myself that I would make a bigger effort in staying connected my only living grandparent. After I completed the contract for my first iPhone, and received my second phone, I prepped and packed it especially for my Lola.
I programmed her phone with all the contact information for her sisters, children and grandchildren. Every morning while I was in the Philippines with her she would request for lessons on how to use the phone. She wanted to make sure that she understood how to use it before I headed back to the U.S. When she learned how to use it on her own, she would make it a routine to go all the way down the list, talking ti each member of our family. Our conversations felt more normal, and with the added bonus of video, we could always show her what we were doing. The time difference between our countries became the least of our worries, and without the added fees of speaking overseas, we stayed on the phone for literally as long as we wanted.
What I didn’t realize was that the iPhone would become my Lola’s lifeline. It would be the source to the connection that I longed for as a child. The tool that so often today gets noticed for its ability to take the attention over people. In 2013, at the age of thirty, I traveled to the Philippines for the very first time. In my luggage, I packed and prepared what would be my Grandma’s first iPhone. My early mission was simple, to equip her with the device so that we could contact her more. But to my surprise, it opened up a dialogue about technology, social media and Internet service that would change and transform my family relationship with her forever.
It allowed us to exist in each others lives on a daily basis.
One aspect of this study that struct me was my ability to take pictures with my family more often. The iPhone allowed me to screenshot any of the conversations I has with her, which helped me to reclaim the tradition of the family portrait. Something that was always so rare in my family, to have everyone in one place, to have a complete photo of all our family members. Growing up in a transnational family made family portrait a big deal. Most of them were formal, taken at weddings, funerals or other family gathering events. What this technology afforded me was the ability to visibly be more candid, emotional and physically engaging in our conversations. That feeling that you get when you talk to someone in real life.
The tradition family portraits was simple, you took a picture and collected it a book, some of us more than others. But what if your living situation does not allow for your to regularly get photographed with the ones that you care about. This project allowed me to push the boundaries of the function and meaning of the family portrait. It gave me the opportunity to see what my own images would look like and for just a moment teleport to a second of time that we are together. While the images might be less formal then we may imagine family portraits to be, they share the same function and meaning that make others want to collect them. The collection of pictures has always been a large practice in my family.
JUNE 27, 2014
From: Makati, Philippines
To: Murrieta, CA
This image is the last photo taken of my Lolo and all his children. When I turned 30 I took my first trip to the Philippines. Shortly after my arrival, my grandfather became ill, and I started to make my family speak with each other via Skype and FaceTime. The night before they left for LAX we all spoke, and while his children were in the air, on the airplane in transit from San Diego he left us. Upon each of their arrivals, I greeted them at the mortuary were we spent our first time in the Philippines all together. It is not formally the nicest image, but is now forever embedded in my brain, a part of who I am and what we experienced as a family. To me this is what embodies my Filipino American experience: The want and need to be in two places at one time.
OUR FAMILY PHOTOS
DECEMBER 18, 2013
From: Murrieta, CA
To: Murrieta, CA
The first time that Lola ever used FaceTime.
SEPTEMBER 8, 2016
From: Sineguelasan, Bacoor, Cavite, Philippines
To: Virginia Beach, VA
Four generations of Javier women.
DECEMBER 25, 2016
From: Virginia Beach, CA
To: San Diego, CA (Chula Vista)
Lydia’s first Christmas.
JUNE 17 2018
From: San Diego, CA (Chula Vista)
To: Sineguelasan, Bacoor, Cavite, Philippines
Lola’s first time meeting Elijah, her thirteenth great grandchild.