My Family Photos

This piece is based on my family’s photograph collection. This collection, stored in various empty shoe boxes and albums throughout the house, has photos from as early as the late 1980s and as recent as last month. It is historical in the obvious sense that photos are a glimpse into a time that is before right now. It is historically Canadian in the obvious sense that most of the pictures were taken in Canada. However, this essay is really about a number of things. Not only does it reveal my family’s personal history, it also hints at the larger story of war, and the immigration experience for new Canadians from a more personal lens. This piece also talks a little bit about my own history as the child of immigrants.

As I was going through our photo albums, my mom and I talked quite a bit about my project. I’ve included a lot of what she said. Of course, this is not a collection that I actively collected. I have to credit my mom for being the primary ‘collector’. She was usually the one to take out the camera for photo-ops and I remember her taking an afternoon every so often and putting together these albums. “I just like taking pictures of myself,” she says cheekily, “you just happened to be in them too.”

The Missing Years

My parents were both born in southern Vietnam, my father in Ho Chi Minh City and my mother in a small fishing village. They moved to Canada in 1990 to “escape communism,” having both lived through the Vietnam War. They arrived six months before I was born. Dates are important here because this is essentially when our photo collection begins.  However, I think that the missing photographs are just as important as the ones we physically have so I want to start there.
It’s very strange for me to think that my mother was already in her late 30s in the early 1990s (she has asked me to be vague on her age), so I actually don’t know what she looked like as a young woman.  I’ve always had to use my imagination when she tells me stories about her childhood.
My mom describes the 1960s and early 1970s as a time when she had “rows and rows of shoes and more dresses than even you.”  She was stylish; she wore very mini mini-skirts and went to dances where she showed off her ball room dancing skills at her university, where she was one of only a handful of girls. “I used to beat all of the boys in my classes,” she says with a smile, “even the future dean of the university!” Yet, a little more hesitantly, she also speaks of how hard it was growing up with a war perpetually in the background. “Oh, that’s not the good stuff,” she says.
When speaking about their youth/adolescence, I’ve noticed that stories are always split up as either before ’75 or after it, which was the year “the communists won and our lives became much worse.” Mostly, I hear about the years before 1975.
The missing photos, then, tell me about two different histories. First is my parents own struggles with what to forget and what to remember. By not having the photos as physical reminders of the past, they could actively work on forgetting it. On the other hand, there is regret for the years that they do want to remember. Second is the very way that history is then passed down. Without the photos, we rely purely on oral history. The very act is traditional to many families, I think. It certainly was to mine, where I learned about my family and who they were through stories alone. It’s how we pass on our memories and makes us feel connected from generation to generation.

Post-Me Years

There are a lot of pictures of me in our albums, which is probably not very strange for most families with kids.  We have a whole album dedicated to when I still looked like a wrinkled bean. Unsurprisingly, there are also a lot of photos of me growing up, with obligatory pictures from each birthday. These aren’t the photos that I’ll focus on.

Exploring the Prairies
Mom looking stylish (sorry mom)
I much prefer the photos of the parties that my parents threw and the gatherings that we had. On one hand, there’s something very strange about seeing your parents outside of their role of just being your parents. Hopefully I’m not the only one! But I think the main reason why I like them so much is that they’re snapshots of new immigrants trying to figure out their new surroundings. It shows their personal transformations – what my mom chose to wear, and the new makeup that she bought, for example. It shows the exploration of the new land. Trips to Banff were well documented. I remember one photo-shoot in the canola fields one day on our way to Turtle Beach in Saskatchewan. When I reminded her of that time, she said, “I had never seen so much yellow.”
"I had never seen so much yellow"
Of course, photographs only capture one second in time. More often than not, and especially with family photos, they tend to capture a happy moment. Nobody in my family tends to break out the camera at a moment of crisis to catch everyone’s reaction. In other words, the fact that they chose to take out a camera and take a picture is telling act. It shows the moments that they believed were worth capturing, for whatever reason.

Yearly trip to Banff
One of my favorite pictures for showcasing history is a picture of my parents at the legislature. On arriving to Canada, they took ESL courses. One of the fieldtrips they were taken on was to the legislature, where they went on a tour and learned how the Canadian government worked. The main reason why I like this picture so much is that I have the same picture, only of myself and my classmates in grade six. Part of our curriculum that year included a visit to the legislature where we probably received a similar tour to the one my parents got. Unfortunately, I no longer have these photos as they're with my aunt who lives out of town. She took them both to add to her own and they now sit on her dressers like triplets. I think this really relates to the notion of collective memory. Many of you will probably know which fieldtrip and which picture I'm going on about. I like that my parents can be in on it too.
My dad's language class. He's second from
the left.

My Own Journey

Talking to friends, reading what I have in my Canadian history classes, I don’t think my own reflections and changes are very unique. Many of us are the children of immigrant parents and go through the same attitudes, embarrassments, and revelations. I was born in Edmonton at the Royal Alexandria Hospital. I went to a French Catholic school for most of my life and had many friends who were 5th or 6th generation Canadians.
When I was younger, I don’t think I was too aware of how ‘different’ I was from my friends. I  think that this was in large part because my parents tried immensely to “do what your Canadian friends did so that you wouldn’t feel left out.” Of course, this is a problematic idea in and of itself and brings up good questions of what makes someone Canadian and what doesn't. It also brings in ideas of dominant attitudes and the creation of the 'other'. These questions remain unanswered here. What I do know is that I figure skated until age 12, went skiing a few times a year, trick or treated every year with the obligatory snow suit underneath my costume, and could build a snow fort with the best of them. We have many pictures that reinforce my memories. Birthday parties were the most photographed and most remembered. The only time I remember feeling different was during lunch at school, where my friends would pull out grilled cheese sandwiches and I would have little container of rice and something else. For the most part though, I share the same collective memories as most of my friends.


We have more than a thousand pictures in this house, many of which haven't been looked at in many years. I think we pick and choose which ones to display because they're reminders for some of our best times. They're like our lives' photoshop, but just in memories. This is how it worked for my parents for a big chunk of their lives, even though it wasn't by choice. The last 20 or so years were about starting over for them and I like that our photo albums really capture this.


  1. It is really important for a family to keep the best moment of their lives. When the photos are taken and not been looked at in many years, it is still ok. Because when people have time to reopen the album, all the happiness and good memories would come back. They are deeply remembered in your minds. I could image when I am old, open the photo album of my entire life, it will feel good!

  2. I think pictures are another great way to document history, both great and small events. Your comments about choosing what to remember and what to forget were good. I do think that sometimes people have the choice to pick or they are forced into situations where they need to pick, such as being in such a difficult situation as your parents were.

  3. Wow, as I was reading your story, I did reflect my own immigrant experiences and truly collecting family photos is documenting history. Your parents picture (banff trip) is similar to my sisters and mine when we made a trip to banff to explore the place for the first time:). The picture was clicked at the same place.

  4. I loved reading about your family, and your mom seems wonderful! I particularly liked your points about the importance of oral history in the absence of anything else. I also agree that photos, at times, reflect what we want to remember, and so photos may not tell an entire story but I think that's ok.

  5. Sometimes I wonder whether photos are becoming more and more staged because of digital cameras and their ability to delete pictures instantly. I certainly delete pictures I don't like right away - people only see the pictures that I 'approve' of, for the most part (I'm a vain person, hehe). It's kind of like we're going back in time when everybody looked the same in pictures - now everyone just has their best face om instead of looking stoic. So pictures might become more of a reflection of how we want others to see us.

    I'm don't have much to complain about though - I'd rather people not see anything unflattering. I always said that if I were to write an autobiography, I'd leave out a lot.

  6. I just wanted to let you know how much I thoroughly enjoyed your post. You captured an experience that almost everyone participates in through a photograph collection, and articulated its significance very well. I especially like the story where you have the same picture as your parents at the legislature, as it ties two generations together in the same moment.

    Your post really captured how photographs are such a great source for documenting history, especially with an interesting back story to accompany it.

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  8. I really enjoyed your post. It truly displays the wonderful way in which we can capture history through a lens. Telling your personal story through photos was a really effective method. Although our lives are quite different, I too was an M&M one halloween and had to wear a snow suit underneath. Good ol' Canadian winters, starting in October.

  9. Thanks everyone!

    Haha I know at least 3-4 other people who were M&Ms. I'm really fascinated by collective memories. It's almost like all of these little things make up our generational culture. I really love that I could go up to someone I didn't know who grew up around the same time I did and go, "Remember when...?" and they would probably go "Oh Ya!"

    Remember Pogs? Pokemon? Beanie Babies? The list goes one!

    1. Haha I had a collection of all of those!!!