Decades ago I was asked to help write our community’s history book, just one of a spate of such projects for Alberta’s 75th anniversary in 1980. The books would chronicle community histories before they were forgotten.
Fast forward to today. Canada is celebrating its 150th as Ukrainians celebrate too. One hundred and twenty-five years ago the very first Ukrainians settlers to Canada put down roots not that many kilometres from where I live. That’s big news for our County and the festival I coordinate.
To help mark the occasion, I’m putting together a PowerPoint presentation to run on a loop at the festival. The goal is to capture images that reflect the historic day-to-day reality of Ukrainian-Canadians. At first, I thought “the older the pictures, the better. ” Someone, a bona fide historian, says the scope should be broader than that. Because I live to serve, I began looking at photos with new interest.
Picture a little girl with bangs and doe eyes in a fancy dress standing solemnly before her first birthday cake. It’s identified as 1964 and has that sickly colour that marks many older pics. The plainly decorated cake is on a round hassock that seems to have a grassy, silk flower arrangement visible in the body of it. There is the ubiquitous spider plant that everyone had back in the day. A plant stand with a doily on it sits in front of a window with the patterned ’fibreglass’ drapes so popular at the time.
Depending on the viewer, that photo may evoke amusement, ridicule, curiosity, or nostalgic warmth. And the same can be said of the black and white ones from 1930 or yesterday’s digital ones. I’ll skip the whole sociological debate about the irony of people snapping pictures with their phones instead of living the experience they’re so desperate to document. Or most people’s seeming reluctance to actually print photos for posterity.
Many of the photos I’m now scanning for the project are from the history book. Someone had the presence of mind to print duplicates back then and now they are in my hot little hands. I have the privilege of looking back, way back, and selecting images for a comprehensive presentation.
I can pick ones with great old “gangster” cars or horse-drawn implements; ones with log buildings or Old West general store facades; ones with old country embroidered blouses or Mad Men era dresses; ones that capture people doing daily chores or those all decked out and stiff as mannequins. I can feature a one-year-old pixie or an eighty-year old baba.
This work reminds me that we should all do a better job of labeling photos because someday, someone will wonder, “Who’s this, when did it happen, what are they doing, and why. What does it mean to me and my place in this family, community, culture?” Most importantly, they’ll wonder why they should care, from where I sit.
Hazel Anaka’s first novel is Lucky Dog. Visit her website for more information or follow her on Twitter @anakawrites.