I have been photographing my younger sister for over ten years. I started taking it more seriously when she expressed to me her disappointment over not having any photographs of herself as a baby, from the time before our family adopted her. Our photography projects can be seen as photo-therapy, because the act of photographing helps build her self-confidence, untangle her identity as a young black girl in our German-American family, and battle any insecurities she, like many other adolescents, may have about her appearance. This series in particular deals with the adverse and borderline racist reactions my parents received from our extended family in Germany when she was first adopted and her need to remember what little knowledge she has about her biological family. Here she peers into a dollhouse that was first constructed by our great grandparents, continued by our grandparents, and finished by our father. My sister and I furnished the dollhouse together with items that have been passed down through our family’s generations, including a clock handmade by my great-grandmother.
This act symbolizes the legitimacy of her claim to my family’s generational memory, despite possible objections from ignorant relatives. In fact, my great-grandmother, who never had the chance to meet my sister, also adopted a child who was orphaned during World War II. The way my sister interacts with the dollhouse mimics occurrences of situational feelings of outsideness. An example of which being when my mother and I converse in Schwäbisch, the dialect of German that we speak, around her. This work felt important to make because my relationship with my sister is often thrown into question, especially by strangers in public, who try to decode how we fit together. Photography allows me to express the responsibility I feel to emotionally support my sister through any challenges she may face as a result of growing up in a white family, especially as the United States continues to be divided along racial lines. The audience for this work is anyone who has ever felt out of place although they belong. I expect that racial relations will come to be less foregrounded than they are now, as the love I have for my sister becomes more common.
Masantu hangs her own black and white portrait on the dollhouse’s family photo wall. The other images on the wall are from our family’s archive, including a color image on the left-hand side of my mother and I from the 1990s. Directly to the left of this image is Johann Hummler, our paternal great-grandfather photographed in 1917 before the end of World War I, during which he was injured. On the opposite side, the oval frame near the doorway holds a photo of Johann Hummler’s mother, Franziska Sonntag’s, parents from 1860. The Hummler family has kept meticulous photographic and written records, giving me the ability to trace our lineage as far back as 1680.
Exhibition view from the Vonovia Award presented at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany, 2022.