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TBG Library: Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

We’re back with another addition to the TBG Library, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life by Renata Cherlise. Renata is a multidisciplinary, research-based visual artist and founder of the digital archival project Black Archives, where she features visual histories and modern-day stories across the African diaspora. Today she joins me to chat about her debut photo book, her family’s long-standing love for archiving their history, and how you can get started archiving and documenting your own experiences.

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Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke

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TBG Library: Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for another bonus episode and another addition to our TBG library. This time, it's Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life by Renata Cherlise. We'll get right into our conversation with Renata after a word from our sponsors.

[SPONSORS’ MESSAGES]

Dr. Joy: When was the last time you combed through family photos and mementos or even sat down and recorded a conversation with one of your elders? If it's been a while, Renata Cherlise of Black Archives is here to guide you. Renata is a multidisciplinary research-based visual artist and founder of the digital archival project, Black Archives, where she features visual histories and modern-day stories across the African diaspora. Today, she joins me to chat about her debut photo book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, her family's long-standing love for archiving their history, and how you can get started archiving and documenting your own experiences. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here's our conversation.

Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Renata, I'm happy to be able to chat with you.

Renata: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Joy: I'd love for you to get started by telling us a little bit about what archiving is. And can you tell us also a little bit about the origin of Black Archives?

Renata: Absolutely. For me, archiving is an intentional way of preserving materials, whether it's documents, it can be photographs, some sort of ephemera, anything that you want to keep for later use or later reference. And what we do with Black Archives, so we pull from materials that have already been archived, whether they've been archived through other institutions, or communities, or people, we share those archive materials across our social channels. And then we also incorporate them into other projects. Black Archives originated as a project very much in self exploration. I was just really curious about archives and just having access to all of these unearthed images, and looking at a way to sort of explore the broader visual story of a black experience. So I considered it a gathering place where, collectively, we can engage with archives across various mediums, uncovering and sharing the research.

Dr. Joy: Got it. It sounds like there's a personal connection there, too. Both your grandmother and your father were shutterbugs. What lessons about photography did you learn from them in your love for archiving?

Renata: My grandmother, she used a Polaroid camera pretty much and she focused on documenting the celebratory moments. So those are your birthdays, your holidays and special occasions. My dad, on the other hand, he recorded literally everything. Even things that didn't appear to be significant, he still recorded it. And I think through them, I learned that both were equally important. And so I try to bring an added layer, incorporating both of their practices into my practice.

Dr. Joy: Can you talk a little bit about the history of archiving? Who are some of the pioneers in this space?

Renata: People have been archiving since the beginning of time. And I want to say that I consider myself more as a memory worker as opposed to an archivist, particularly in the professional sense. And so as a memory worker, I'm working through space and time through the use of archives and I engage with them through various projects. But I'd say it's an aggregation of archives because the work is already archived. I'm essentially just pointing you to those sources. And so, as a family archivist, at a personal level, my role is the person that gathers and preserves or digitizes. The pioneers in this space, for me essentially, is anyone within my lineage who actively participated in preserving our family stories. That's my mom, my grandmother, my auntie, my great grandma, you know, and so forth. So I really come into this space without formal training in archiving and so my references originate at the family and community level. It's like, who's telling stories? Who's writing them down? Who took the photos? Who put them in some sort of safe place for keeping after they pass? Who took them out? You know, who backed them up? Who brings everything together? And I think that's where I come into archiving at a family level.

Dr. Joy: You know, Renata, I think a lot of us have probably a story. So for myself, my grandmother would collect the programs from funerals that she attended. She's passed now, but she had this black purse that she had all of these old family pictures in. And one of my favorite things to do around the holidays would be to like gather the family and say, okay, who are these people in the pictures? And like, what can we be doing with this? And so I would imagine that many of us have that kind of a story, where people have collections of these things but aren't sure what to do with it and how to get started. What kinds of recommendations would you have for how to get started with archiving your family history?

Renata: Just start with the basic, like as simple as possible. I started with a photo scanner, an external hard drive and my computer. And just begin digitizing. Personally, for me, I consider myself a digital hoarder, so I digitize everything and I store it and I back it up like a million times. But at a basic level, you can just upload them into a cloud drive, back them up to an external hard drive, label your photographs. You can take it another step and categorize them by themes or geographic locations, whatever system you create on your own. You want to make sure that the original document or ephemera, or whatever you have to preserve, that that's available for safekeeping as well.

Dr. Joy: What if we come from a family who has not done a great job of capturing some of those memories in the past, but we want to start doing some of that. What tools, either digital or physical, would you suggest for us to get started with capturing new memories?

Renata: Utilize what you have and keep it as simple as possible. Before I had access to a recording device, I used my phone in addition to the voice memo. Sometimes you don't have access to everything, or sometimes things sort of happen on the spot and so using the voice memos on your phone (your iPhone, if you have an iPhone), that's really been helpful for me. And I've recorded a lot of conversations with elders and people in my family who are no longer here. So just start with what you have. If you have a camera or get a camera, or utilize your phone, and just make sure that you're backing that up, that you're transferring off of your phone to some sort of external hard drive. And then backing that up, which can be a cloud or something. Make sure that you have multiples.

Dr. Joy: Got it. I know sometimes when we are talking to elders in our families about history, there can be some distrust and like, what are you using this for? And like what's happening? Why do you need this? So do you ask for permission before you record? And how do you explain to them what's happening or what you're doing with the material?

Renata: I used to. Now, everybody knows I'm going to record… Oh, that's Renata, she's got the camera, and so they engage with me. But I think once you set the intention and set the tone and the expectation that you are the designated photographer, you're the person who's going to be documenting, then they're sort of easy-going. In most cases, I try to have my phone with me just to record because you never know when that thing or when she's gonna say something. I always try to have it with me just to make sure that I'm ready to record. Sometimes she'll catch me off guard and I’ll be like just give me one second, let me go grab my phone, let me get this really quick. She's used to it.

Dr. Joy: And do you take the opportunity for like holidays or other family gatherings to do some of this work with people in your family?

Renata: That's the perfect time because everyone is together. You can do fun things, things that get everyone together for your portraits, but you can also do video diaries or have them take self-portraits. You just can do a lot of fun things in that type of setting. So yes, those are definitely moments you want to capitalize on.

Dr. Joy: You mentioned a term, Renata, that I want to go back to because I don't know that I've heard that term before. You said you refer to yourself more as a memory worker. Can you say more about what that means?

Renata: In the sense of an archivist, like I mentioned, I don't have the formal training or the professional training that is required to work in archives. I don't work with archives in a professional sense, I don't work with archives, on a day-to-day basis. What you see is me working through or engaging with archives and sort of sharing that imagery or that history or those materials across our social platforms. And so, as plainly as I can state it, I work through space and time through the use of archives. But I don't necessarily preserve them in a professional sense because those materials are already archived. I utilize sources that have already done that work. They already have a staff of archivists that are doing the work to preserve the stories so that folks like me, as a memory worker, I can delve into those materials, I can unearth them, and I can share them with the larger community.

Dr. Joy: Got it. So I don't know if you've seen this. But I've definitely seen like posts on social media, particularly it seems around moms or women who have struggles with like having pictures of themselves taken. Or moms, because they're the one always taking the picture, and so then they are not ever in the images. Do you have anything, any advice or words of encouragement you might share for people who are uncomfortable with having pictures of themselves taken?

Renata: Yeah, so two things to that point. The first thing is, I'm always behind the camera - I'm very intentional about showing up because you want to make sure that you're showing up in that record. To have a family gathering and you're the one that's always documenting but you never are seen, that's something that I try to avoid. And to the point where, if one of my family members sees me recording everything, they're like, hey Renata, I need you to pop in this picture. And so you got to be intentional about that. In the sense of maybe not feeling like you want to be recorded or you want to be documented, I get that. I know, for me, there are times where I wish I had a moment captured that there wasn't a camera around for whatever reason. And you don't want to go your whole life without photographs of yourself.

Dr. Joy: As I hear you talk, it sounds like you have really kind of changed the dynamic in your family, where it seems like multiple people now are thinking about how to capture family history. They will see you as the person with the camera and like, oh, you make sure you're included. So can you talk a little bit about how that dynamic maybe has shifted in your family?

Renata: My dad was that person and my dad passed away a long time ago, it's been about 15 years so far, and I just moved into his role. And he was the person that was always documenting. But when you look back at some of those home movies and some of those photographs, you don't always see him and I didn't want that to be me. I wanted to make sure that I'm accounted for. And I do wish that we could have seen him more, especially as I look through his work. But yeah, I just assumed that role and everyone just kind of fell into it because my dad sort of set the expectation for that.

Dr. Joy: Right, right. And you mentioned that your grandmother was on the side of capturing the celebratory moments while dad was the one who captured like the everyday moments. Can you say more about why it's important for us to document seemingly mundane social history of black people?

Renata: You know, life is not always about the big moments. And I think it brings balance when you're capturing not only or focusing on those bigger moments. Life consists of the celebratory moments and the smaller, much quieter moments, and we should all have some sort of reference to that. So it's important. And for my family, there was balance because my grandmother did what she could. She was on a fixed income and she needed to preserve the film for those moments. My grandmother wanted to make sure that she had film to document and record those special times. And with my parents, they had a little more money, so they were able to be a little more free with the documentation and so it's just important to have those.

Dr. Joy: Right. More from my conversation with Renata after the break.

[BREAK]

Dr. Joy: What are some culturally specific but often forgotten nuances you've seen in your years of archiving?

Renata: That's a good question. To go back to what you said about moms not showing up in the photographs all the time, sometimes we may not always look or feel our best as we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, in our hearts, on our backs. But if we're always waiting for that perfect photographable moment, we'll go through life and miss so many other moments in between that I know that I wish I had back or do over. For myself, I'll say this. I think more self-portraits and more video diaries. I have a series of video diaries where I greet myself. Whomever may come across the diary in the future hopefully is someone within my family, but I say the date and I go on with my journal entry. And sometimes it's just giving a personal update and others are a little more complex. But I would love to see that for my elders. Have some sort of reference as to a personal moment with them in the camera and just being vulnerable. So if I could say that, that would be one of the nuances I would like to see more of, or at least that we're taking into consideration when we're documenting.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, I can also imagine that being a real treat for your children to have at one time, to see mom as like an actual woman and not just mom, right? Hearing a recording of your daily thoughts.

Renata: I came across a video of my dad that blew me away. And it's only one video, but I think this was back in the 90s and I recently came across this. I think the goal was just to fill up some extra space on the tape so he could make the most of it. He was just sitting in front of the camera and he was talking about me. We just went to Renata’s fifth grade graduation. And it was sort of like this intimate, vulnerable moment that he had with the camera, just one on one. And I feel so blessed to have that and to witness that. And I wish there were more, like why didn't he do this more often? And so I make sure that I'm intentional about doing that and I would love to see that. Not necessarily for me to benefit but for other family to have that experience too.

Dr. Joy: As you're talking, it makes me think, I think some of what people are doing with social media is an attempt at like this digital archiving. So when you talk about these journal entries, I feel like some people do that kind of thing on TikTok. Do you have thoughts about that serving as a digital archive and how maybe people can take what they use there and make it their own personal archive?

Renata: Instead of posting, just saving it and archiving it that way, because I do the same thing. Some things are personal and things that I definitely wouldn't share on social media or TikTok or anything like that. But just knowing that I have a place where I can do that myself and get things that I need to get out. That's something to consider. Making sure that there's an archive for whatever they want to share because also we don't know how long these platforms are going to live and what happens to that technology.

Dr. Joy: What do you think about archiving makes it a tool for black resistance or liberation?

Renata: We have paper trails to sort of trace back our stories in some cases, but there are photographs sometimes that can be a bit difficult. And I know for me and my family, one of the things that I questioned is where are our photographs prior to the 1960s? Why do I see us in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and so forth, but what happened to that imagery before or prior to? And my mom told me a story about my great-grandmother, she got into like a dispute with a landlord and all of our family photos at that time prior to the 70s were in like this dresser and he just sort of held it hostage. And then photographs were just abandoned, displaced or whatever. Destroyed, I don't know, but we don't have access to those images anymore. But thereafter, my mom and my aunt and my grandmother were very intentional about creating a record, some sort of visual record of our lives and our histories and preserving that so that we have some sort of point of reference. That will probably be just resisting the attempt of erasure.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, and I think also back to our earlier conversation about just everyday black life. I think so many of the pictures from older days we see are around like being at protests. As opposed to, we were doing that, but also like just having Sunday dinner with our families, or kids playing in the yard. I think it's important to have a record of all of that.

Renata: Yeah, kids just being silly. There are so many photographs of everyday moments that I can reflect on that just bring me joy. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy reflecting back on those celebratory moments, especially when we started using the family camcorder, so those are really fun because you get to see everybody's personality. But yeah, the everyday moments are so special. And you're right - there's more to us than protesting. There's the quiet moments in between that are also important.

Dr. Joy: How have black women been underrepresented in archives and archival work?

Renata: That's a good question. Because for me, black women have carried the story. The men in my family have… And I'm speaking with archives within a family sense, that's where I relate to. But the men in my family for one reason or another, they passed very young and so the women were left to carry the stories and to pass stories down. And my family, the women in my family are the ones that are helping us attach the names to faces, filling in the gaps.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, I think back to my earlier story around my grandmother having all these recordings of funeral programs. It definitely feels like the women in families tend to be the ones who are archiving some of their history without necessarily knowing what they're doing there.

Renata: Yeah, for sure.

Dr. Joy: In 2010, you launched a Tumblr page, Lost in Urbanism. What lessons from the blog did you take into working on your book?

Renata: You know, that was so long ago, that was like a lifetime ago and at least five years before I even launched Black Archives, so very much feeling my way around and navigating that space of, look at all of these images, and just overwhelmed because these images weren't photographs that I saw in textbooks or that I was familiar with in the media. And so I set on this journey, this path for self-exploration. I think what I learned through that process was in the early days, my research now in comparison to then is completely different. And so I think that helped me become a really good researcher and I learned the importance of researching and how to reverse image search to find the original source. Because not all photos that you come across online have the proper credits or cited properly. In the early days of Tumblr, I'm coming across a photograph and I'm just sharing it because I don't know that there's these rules. And through time, that's one of the things that I learned - how to properly source and cite and credit. Now, it's funny because I have friends who come across photographs, they'll text me: Renata, do you know the photographer for this photograph? This thing where it's like a puzzle, and yeah, give me a day and I'll get it back to you.

Dr. Joy: I was gonna ask, since you brought up the whole idea of being able to give credit, I know that is something that is often a struggle for photographers and people who do similar kinds of work to you. People sharing stuff without proper attribution. Is that something that has been a concern for you? And if so, how have you managed that?

Renata: No, we're sourcing from archives and we're including those attributions into different captions so that really hasn't been a problem for us. But sometimes you'll come across imagery from like the early 1900s where the photographer is unknown. We'll simply state that this is an unknown photographer. Or maybe they're found photographs, where people found these photographs and shared them online and there is no way to know who took this photograph. Or sometimes you can use contextual clues to guess where the photograph was taken if it's on a public place. But sometimes you do your best. I research as much as I can and I do my best to present all of the information. In that way, if someone wants to do further research, at least they have some sort of reference point.

Dr. Joy: Got it. More from my conversation with Renata after the break.

[BREAK]

Dr. Joy: When did you know it was time to take Black Archives, the Instagram page and the digital project, into a book?

Renata: I think that has always been a goal. It actually has been a goal because I remember back in the Lost in Urbanism days, I would think to myself it would be so cool to have a book, but I wasn't to that point yet. And so when I launched Black Archives in 2015, I launched it with the intent that this would sort of act as a creative umbrella where I could work on various different projects and engage with archives across different mediums. And so this book is just one of those projects under that umbrella. I would say that I always thought it would be cool to create this book. I didn't know it was going to be this book but I knew I wanted to create a book. And I want to do other things, too. I want to work on film projects and other types of collaborative archival projects as well.

Dr. Joy: Any information you can give us about other things that you're hoping to do?

Renata: Not just yet.

Dr. Joy: We’ve got to stay tuned.

Renata: I hope that we’ll continue to grow and evolve.

Dr. Joy: Got it. So in your book, you speak on the beauty and importance of documenting youth, which you've already kind of alluded to here. In the book, you say: As a mother, it's important to me that my personal and professional work reflects intentionality in my celebration and love of black youth, while reminding black folks of the sweet moments tucked away within the memories of their own black childhoods. Can you share some thoughts on the value of documenting our youth and the youth around us?

Renata: Yeah, absolutely. You'll see that when we're sharing photographs across our social, you always see in most cases, they're black youth. And so that's always at the forefront and I always think that it's important too. Just thinking back into the archives that we're sharing present day it’s always so cool to imagine what our grandparents and great grandparents… Because I know for me, my grandmother, when I was born, it was like, oh, she's my grandmother. But I was just asking my mom, I said I'm trying to find pictures of Granny when she was a kid or a baby. And because of that unfortunate incident with the landlord with my great-grandmother, I don't have that reference. And so I’ll always see her as sort of like this older woman. Which is fine. It's just, it's so cool to imagine what it would have been like to see her as a young person. I do show black youth as often as I can and it's important to be reminded of that.

Dr. Joy: It definitely feels like there's a lineage of this in your family. Can you say a little bit about what you've taught your own children about the importance of making memories and capturing them?

Renata: Oh, yeah. I have one daughter, she's a sophomore at Spelman right now and she just black archives. The whole time I've been creating Black Archives, she's been right here by my side and so it's so funny because sometimes I'm not always around her in family gatherings and she just inherently starts recording. And then she'll send it to me, like mom, I got this really cool stuff. And I think it's fantastic. Because she's seen me do it and then it's sort of like this thing where she's incorporated it into her own practice so that’s it's just part of her now.

Dr. Joy: I love that. She'll have her own little archive to contribute.

Renata: It's always funny too when my mom and my other family - they're in Florida, I live in Metro Atlanta, if they're going to a Sunday brunch… This just happened last weekend, actually. My mom is recording all of my cousins and everyone and I can hear her as she's pressing record on her phone, everybody say hey Renata, because if I don't get this, she's gonna kill me. Almost trained to document even when I'm not available or if I'm not there, so I think that's really cool.

Dr. Joy: Renata, because it does seem like several members of the family are now involved in this, do they just end up like sending it all to you? Or is there a family Google Drive or something where people upload stuff? Do you all have a system?

Renata: Yeah, both actually. If I'm doing it, I will record and I will sort of take on that archiving process and I'll share the Google Drive link so everyone has access to download at their leisure. What we've learned with our family is just do it at the top of mind. So as soon as you record it, turn your AirDrop on, let me get the photos, let me get the videos, and then I can get out of everyone's hair. But otherwise, I'll just start harassing them for, hey, where are those photographs?

Dr. Joy: Can you help us make sense of what we should do and how to get started with some of the thousands of photos and videos? Like I'm thinking about myself. My oldest is eight now, I have an iPhone, so I have very early memories of all of that but I know that it all should not live in my phone. You talked about the importance of digitizing and recording, so is the process then to try to move it to some kind of cloud and then write down dates and descriptions? Or how should we make sense of all of the data we have in our phones?

Renata: You should do that. Upload it, you can use the cloud, and then you can move it from your computer to an external hard drive. I usually save them. It depends, but I have a few systems where I think you should use something that you use universal across, just so that it's easier for you to find, especially if you're the one that's going to be archiving. But I include the year, so I'll use 2023. And then sometimes I'll just use also key words so that, without having to rewatch whatever that video is, quickly, I can glance and see that, oh, this is when we had that birthday outing last year. And just start with that. I don't think it should be this difficult thing because we can quickly get overwhelmed. But if you take it a step at a time, just start with uploading it, labeling it. Share it so other people have access to it and other people know that you have this place, this centralized place where you're beginning the archive, the family moments, whatever they are. Just share it and then just keep doing it a little at a time. And I'm not gonna say it can't be overwhelming because it can be, but I think it's a lifelong process. I know for me, it's something that I've signed up to do until someone else comes along and I can sort of pass on the role to someone else.

Dr. Joy: I would imagine that lots of people who check out this episode will be really interested in starting to do something with their families. Let's say we have some community members who are preparing a family gathering or there's a wedding coming up, and they maybe want to start getting some video footage, do you have any prompts? Or like favorite questions that you ask maybe the elders in your family or other people in your family to kind of get some of this stuff started?

Renata: That's a really good question. I don't, only because I'm the type of person that will get you on FaceTime as soon as the thought comes to mind and so I know I've covered a lot of ground with my family, in terms of getting those moments. But I'm trying to think, if I could just like go back in time to the very first time where everything was new. Alright, let's say you have some elders. I would start just asking them their name, when they were born, how they grew up, where they grew up. And it doesn't have to be strategic or this structured thing, just let it flow. And as they begin to tell you the stories of however they came to be, I think the conversation will begin to unfold, and you can just take it to where it needs to be taken to. But just start off simple.

Dr. Joy: And I think sometimes you'll be surprised where those conversations go by asking something like, what was your favorite thing to do? Or who were some of your friends then? And who knows what kinds of things open up then. Renata, where can we keep up with you online? What is your social media handles you want to share, as well as your website?

Renata: You can find Black Archives on Instagram, that was the very first social platform we popped up on. It's BlackArchives.co. And we're also on Twitter @BlackArchivesCo and we're also on Facebook, so you can find us on Facebook as well under BlackArchives.co.

Dr. Joy: And how can we support the book?

Renata: The book is available wherever books are being sold. You can also inquire with your independent bookseller to purchase the book and get it in stock that way as well. You can purchase it online, it's on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, everywhere you can think.

Dr. Joy: Can you give us the full title of the book again, Renata?

Renata: Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life.

Dr. Joy: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Renata: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Renata was able to join us to share about her family's love for archiving and highlighting the importance of capturing life's mundane and celebratory moments. We'd like to challenge you to take a moment to record an everyday moment with a family member or loved one this week and share it with us on socials using the hashtag #TBGblackArchives. To learn more about Renata or to grab a copy of the book, visit TherapyForBlackGirls.com/BlackArchives. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you want to continue digging into this topic, or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me for this conversation. We'll be back next week with our regularly scheduled episode. Take good care.