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Archiving online photo albums

By Ellie Turner-Kilburn

Central to the Tommie and Betty archive is their photo album, assembled over many years it tells the story of the two women’s lives together. The album is tactile and personal. Not only can we see their handwritten notes, briefly adding context to the images, but we can imagine the process of taking, developing, selecting and fixing the photographs that went into the album. As a result of this, this photo album is an intensely personal item, and its being displayed as part of the ‘Queer the Pier’  exhibition has thrown up many ethical discussions among the group over the past few weeks. 

Whilst on first glance the photo album might appear a simple, mundane item it’s presence in the museum is radical, this personal, hand constructed record breaks many of the rules that we unconsciously expect when we enter the museum. It is not a piece of Great Art created by someone famous, created with the aim of being admired, it is the opposite. This photo album was made by two ordinary women to document their lives, to keep a hold of the moments that mattered to them. Indeed, from what we have seen of the photo album the contents itself is also not extraordinary, without the context of knowing these two women were in a relationship, you could perhaps pass many of the pictures without recognising their significance. These pictures are of two women quietly living their lives, without even taking into account the fact that these women were queer, these are not the kinds of stories we have been taught to expect from museums, impressive places where we learn about impressive people. To include the ordinary and the ephemeral, as well as the queer, is to break those rules and that can be uncomfortable. 

However, as we learnt when listening to a recent talk by Jamie Brett from the Museum of Youth Culture that is not the way that museums have to be. There is just as much value in collecting  the artefacts and memories of ‘ordinary’ people and the stories they have to tell. When considering these everyday stories of youth culture and how we collect them, we asked how we can approach collecting the aspects of youth culture which take place online.

Even prior to Covid-19, so much of our lives take place online, especially the lives young people, and even more so for queer young people who are able to explore their identities and communities from the privacy of their own room, providing a degree of safety that many are not afforded IRL. These online activities can range from the sharing of memes to the organising of large scale protests and organising. Yet, whilst the internet might be huge, public and ever-changing, we choose how we interact with it, what we see and what other people see of us. Just as Tommie and Betty did in their photo album, creating safe and private space to cherish their community, friendships and their own relationship. 

Arguably, we are still doing the same now, with perhaps the most comparable platform being Instagram. These profiles are curated and created in just the same way Tommie and Betty created their photo album, pictures are taken, edited, selected and posted, with captions attached. We still continue to tell and archive the stories of queer lives through the medium of the photoalbum. Perhaps, this is also why we are more aware of the implications of opening and displaying albums such as Tommie and Betty’s, as we are more keenly aware of issues of privacy, more aware of the implications of others using our images and stories without our permission. We can choose if our albums are public and private, and can stop people from commenting, following, viewing our online archives if we choose. 

Images from Tommy & Betty’s Photo Album, Queer the Pier, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

Often we choose to use these scrapbooks, these ‘platforms’, to raise awareness of causes and issues which are important to us. Many queer people use their images to speak about issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community and to educate others about, happening on both a micro and macro level. It seems only fitting then that Tommie and Betty, who did not have a the luxury of a public queer identity, of being able to express their identities and opinions in a public way, are now being offered such a platform. Tommie and Betty’s photo album can now serve as a means to raise awareness of what it was like to be a queer person in the 1940s and 1950s. Through their own records they have provided valuable evidence of what it was like to be a queer person in this era. We do not have the luxury of hearing what Tommie and Betty might say about this time, but we do have the luxury of being able to view their lives through their eyes, through the images they have chosen to keep and preserve. 

The Start of A Queer Project

Written by Ricardo Reverón Blanco

Archiving Your Life is a 6 month project enabling young people to research interpret and (re)present queer histories through a range of archives, taking particular consideration of the Tommie & Betty collection (currently on show at Brighton Art Galleries & Museum  as part of Queer the Pier). The archive represents the perfect time capsule of a queer life and relationship. This is a partnership between Photoworks, a platform for contemporary photography, and Queer in Brighton, a heritage learning project celebrating and promoting LGBT cultural life in Brighton & Hove. 

    Zoom Session led by Ricardo Reverón Blanco introducing the programme  (Wednesday 15th April 2020)

I’m thrilled to take this creative journey with such a great core group. We’ll be exploring queer identity through heritage, creative and curatorial (online) workshops. I’m excited for all the different curators, artists and queer historians who will be part of the programme and lead some of the workshops, such as E-J Scott (curator of the Museum of Transology) or Jamie Brett from Youth Club Archive. We also have the fantastic Eva Louisa Jonas joining us as a Photography Facilitator for 6 practical sessions. I know Eva’s vision will support the group into creatively responding to the T&B archive’s themes in interesting ways.

Poster designed by Eva Louisa Jonas in preparation for her first creative session with the group on Wednesday 13 May.

Our group – Queer History Now – meets every 2 weeks via Zoom to collectively think, discuss and creatively engage with all the issues surrounding the showcase and interpretation of queer archives. Throughout this journey each participant will be pursuing two research questions that relate to the themes found in the T&B archive; one taking a heritage and archival focus, whilst the second takes a more practical and creative approach. 

All the work done by the participants will culminate in a curated exhibition that will be part of the Photoworks Festival 2020 in late September. I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!

We will be documenting our journey on this blog, but follow us on instagram for updated content: @queerhistorynow @photoworks_uk #alternativenarrative @queerinbrighton

 Zoom Session led by E-J Scott on the ‘Tommie & Bettie” archive  (Wednesday 29th April 2020)

Youth opportunity: Queer Heritage Youth Programme

Willow Persephone Ginbey-Fear, 2016

Are you aged 16-25 and interested in LGBTQ+ heritage?

Get involved in a training programme for young people from the Brighton area exploring LGBTQ+ history. Take on a role in building a new organisation to preserve the wealth of LGBTQ+ heritage in Brighton. Learn creative skills including curation and programming, gain leadership experience and work with archives and collections.

August and September sessions now announced.

Come to one or all of the sessions, according to your taste and interest.

Wednesday 14 August – Personal is political: Queer lives in archives
Queer archives have often consisted the ephemeral e.g. flyers, letters and personal items, as a necessary way to evidence the existence of queer lives and culture. If the personal is political, then archive it! We look at different examples from lesbian memes to pulp fiction and ask what makes an item archive worthy?

Wednesday 28 August – Hearing history
In this session we will consider the theoretical, practical and ethical implications of recording and holding material. With guests Roni Guetta from Queer in Brighton and historian Sharon Webb we will look at curating and archiving principles, take part in practical exercises and select extracts from queer oral histories for the public domain.

Wednesday 11 September – A day at the archive
A visit to The Keep; a purpose built archive and historical resource centre that holds a variety of material relating to LGBTQ+ history in Brighton and beyond. Hear from an archivists and discuss some of the ethical issues and responsibilities of this role.

Wednesday 25 September – An evening at the museum
An after-hours group visit to the Museum of Transology and the LGBTQ+ trail at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. A museum professional will talk to us about queering the museum.

Wednesday 9 October – Decolonising heritage
A talk about local heritage and architecture, and its colonial roots.

Wednesday 23 October – Visit to London
Join us on a day trip to London (times tbc) to visit some of the country’s most important LGBTQ+ collections and archives. Hear from the Bishopsgate archivist, Stef Dickers and explore their LGBTQ+ collection. Visit radical archive MayDay Rooms and community run 56a.

Sessions will take place from 6.30 to 8.30pm at the Young People’s Centre – 69 Ship Street, Brighton, BN1 1AE.

If you have any questions about the programme please email heritage@queerinbrighton.co.uk

A partnership project with Marlborough Productions CIC and New Writing South funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.

Young people’s work exhibited for Pride

Queer identities explored by young people in Pride exhibition at Jubilee Library

Photomontage by participant Tom

Photoworks partnered with Royal Pavilion & Museums and Allsorts Youth Project to run two Photography Club programmes themed around an exploration of queer identity.

An exhibition will open in Jubilee Library on Friday 26 July bringing together work produced by the young people who took part, enabling their voices to be heard and celebrated during Brighton & Hove Pride.

Inspired by the Museum of Transology and Queer Looks displays at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, a group of young people worked with photographer Lynn Weddle to create work exploring their lives and identities. They investigated work by artists identifying as LGBTQ+ and examined narratives and self-representation. The group used camera-less photography techniques and experimented with cyanotypes; a photographic process that uses sunlight and paper treated with iron salt solutions to create a cyan-blue print.

Cyanotype by participant Josh

Artist Noe Warren led another group, who regularly meet at Allsorts Youth Project, through an exploration of queer history, art, activism and community. They discussed important historical figures, defining moments and discovered queer artists working now. Using self-portraits made in a pop-up studio and photo-montages with found photographs, the young people created their own visual responses to the histories of radical, queer activism and art.

Photomontage by participant Ray

Photoworks would like to thank Adrien, Annie, Beth, Felice, Holly, Isaac, James, Josh, Kamea, Leon, Liv, Ray, Rian and Tom for taking part and Noe Warren, Lynn Weddle, Reuben Davidson, Allsorts Youth Project and Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Youth Engagement Team for enabling this work to be made.

In All The Places I Touch The World will be at Jubilee Library 26 July-11 August. Free entry, open to everyone. Opening times: Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-5pm; Mon, Tue, Thu 10am-7pm; Sun 11am-5pm