Experiments with timecapsules

Elina Moraitopoulou is a doctoral student at the University of Hamburg and a researcher at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Elina has been experimenting with the photographs from the Connectors Collection in Children’s Photography Archive for her doctoral research and here she writes about her experience with children in English primary schools. 

I am caught up in my head looking for the words that best describe the impotence possessing my body when all efforts to convene my eight-year-old research interlocutors around the table are failing. Ali, sitting next to me, finds much more interest in toasting the communal teddy-frog on the surface of the heater plugged beside him, sending everyone into peals of laughter. We are sitting in a small room, at the top floor of the school. The main building door, right underneath us, opens widely and Year-Two flows out into the yard, their voices transcending the school’s stone walls and double-glazed windows. A voice recorder placed a few minutes ago right at the middle of the room is capturing some of the sonic happenings which may well bring back the same visceral discomfort and sweating hands when I sit down months later to playback the recording. It’s almost mid-day and I know I have limited time until our group disperses for the day, and my young research companions are called back to class. All the while, I play the same question in my head: How do I talk to them about memory?

Memory has many faces. In my PhD research I use memory as a heuristic tool to explore together with children (eight to eighteen years old) their visions of education futures. This, experience has taught me, presupposes arriving at a shared understanding of what memory in childhood and children’s memories can be in the first place, areas that have yet to be adequately researched within the fields of childhood and memory studies. Today is my first time working with such a young group (until now, I have worked primarily with students between the ages of 13 and 16). To get us started, I spread a range of crafting material on the table: colourful pens and carton papers, stickers, empty postcards, glitter, and furs. In my ‘toolbag’ I also carry printouts of other children’s creations from previous research sessions, a polaroid camera, and a catalogue of the Children’s Photography Archive (CPA). I place them too at the centre of the table. I am soon intrigued by the curiosity that the photographic content of the CPA catalogue sparks in the room, which inevitably leads me to ask the young interlocutors if they know what an archive is. My question is followed by silence. But the idea to discuss memory through the CPA is seeded.

The next morning, I take permission from the headteacher, who is also my principal research gatekeeper for the school, to borrow a bunch of school tablets for the second in the series of my research workshops with the group. Today’s session ‘objective’ has now shifted to a muddling through the CPA.

My initial illusions that no one in the room had ever ‘seen’ or ‘heard of’ an archive before are dissolved soon after everyone takes their seats around the table. All the while, the interest in the toasted frog wanes once tablets make their appearance. Archives are places “w[h]ere things [a]r[e] saved”, notes Alice on her paper after I finish my introduction on today’s session. She needs to write it somewhere, “otherwise I’ll forget”, she explains. When nobody on the table seems to be able to describe how archives look, Penelope breaks the silence jumping in with excitement:

“Oh I’ve got an idea! So archives are big buildings, and sometimes these archives are like adventurous and kind of like David Attenborough people who write down the things that they found in like travels and things. And they send them off in little bottles, up through these tubes, and they put them in, and then you just say, we, you can go in, people can go in and ask, ‘Can I have this ar[chive] this thing from this archive?’. It’s kind of like a library”. (Workshop Recording, October 1, 2020)

While everyone else’s eyes start sparking with excitement, I am trapped in a state of limbo between enthusiasm and confusion which doesn’t go unnoticed by Penelope. “I can show you on your laptop”, she says to me in an assertive tone. (Penelope tapping on my laptop’s keyboard).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXnw22TktOs&ab_channel=StudiocanalUK

For the rest of that session, we would be using our tablets to explore a digital version of what Paddington and Mr. Brown did at The Geographer’s Guild. The adventurous, ‘David Attenborough kind of people’ would be young photographers, approximately the same age as the young research interlocutors. The captions of the young photographers’ travels, houses, and everyday lives in three places of the world, London, Hyderabad and Athens, would be at the epicenter of our virtual expedition to what could look like a digital Geographer’s Guild or, in Lucie’s words, “a time capsule” of children’s photographs.

Everyone grabs a tablet and taps the CPA’s URL as I spell it for them. I decide to give no further instructions on how to use the archive as the process of scrolling through other children’s photographs soon proves to be rather self-explanatory for the group. Alice is navigating the ‘toys’ section of the archive, a theme decided by the children photographers themselves. She speculates that one possible reason for saving photos of children’s toys is because they may disappear in the future and “because they might not have these toys in 30 years”. Alfie shifts from fascination about a Star Wars photo to feeling perplexed by another child’s photo of a light switch, the photo’s ‘odd’ content bringing him laughter. Why would someone choose to take a picture of a light switch, he wonders? Ellie becomes obsessed with images featuring chapatis and starts turning around the table to show everyone. At the same time, I hear Clare commenting on another child’s picture of a sunset: “It’s a great shot and I’m surprised a kid took it! It’s pretty and us two [pointing at her friend siting next to her] love sunsets!”.

Anonymous. Photo 0368. 2015. “Children’s Photography Archive.” Archive licensed under Creative Commons. Accessed on 7 Feb. 2022. https://childphotoarchive.org/collections/connectors-study/photo0368.

Penelope is captivated by a goat’s gros plan. She puts on a big smile and rushes to confess her understanding for the photographer’s interest in this shot. “To be honest, that’s what I do, I’d go to this goat and like take a picture of its teeth”. I ask three of the young interlocutors sitting opposite me to show me their favorite picture at the count of three.

I am fascinated, although not exactly surprised, to see they all choose pictures of cats as their favorite archive entries. Animals, and cats in particular, have been a recurring theme of discussion during both our sessions. Some children on the table own one or more cats themselves and share accounts of their everyday lives with them. The previous day, Ali decided to draw a picture of his cat that died on one of the empty postcards. He drew a red spot on the cat’s chest which, as he explained, was his cat’s heart. It is important that he remembers his cat, he says, for the way it made him and his sister laugh, recalling this one time it brought them this dead bird. “[It] was just great”, he writes.

What makes the CPA interesting for Alice is that “you can see what other people saw”. “And also it’s cute cuz you can see what the pictures are cute of like the animals and stuff and also you can look at their location and you can see like how far it is away from like where like you live”, she continues without removing her eyes from the screen. I ask the young cat enthusiasts to scroll down their pictures and look at the #Tags section of each of the three photographs.

In one excerpt from the audio file (edited for anonymisation purposes), we hear Penelope saying:

“I wanna see what people of the same year of birth as me did, same who had the person who had the same year of birth as me did. Ooooh this is what people of the same birthday, well not the same birthday, but like same year of birth as me [did]. This person has the same year his birthday and did his dog!”.

For her it is important to ‘see’ what other people of her age did. Did they also like teddies in Hyderabad? Did they also like Christmas in Athens? She asks while scrolling through the archive locations. The location tag ‘Athens’ brings her back memories of the time she travelled with her parents in Athens:“I want to see what people in Greece, in Athens did. I like Greece cause I’m Christian and I was listening to the bells on Sundays and afternoons […] You could hear in like every day, on Sunday, you could hear the bell ringing and I always used to stand [at] the top of the water slides and look at the bell whilst I was waiting for my turn. And I loved it. In the water slides. Cuz we went to a hotel called [name of hotel] and the slides were like maybe half the size of this school! They were really big and that was just what I did! But there was this one with the rings. And I sat in it. And I used to get stuck in it. So the lifeguards had to come down the slide to push me down. Because I used to get stuck because I was too small for the rings. So I wasn’t in the right position. And I wasn’t heavy enough for it. So the ring it used to float off to the side and [I would] get stuck in the corners. So the lifeguards they used to have to shout ‘this [girl] got stuck again!’. And they all knew who it was by then. They were like ‘try not to get stuck in this time’. Because I used to get stuck every single time, same spot, every single time.” (Workshop Recording, October 1, 2020). 

Penelope tells her story in a playful, self-sarcastic tone that makes everyone else laugh. Through photographs taken by children who live in Athens, she recalls her own memories of the place, marked by the sound and view of Sunday and afternoon bells that connect her to her own religion. Those images and sounds bring back in turn memories of the size of the water slides, and the feeling of ‘getting stuck’ in the big slide rings, self-conscious that they are not made for her small size and low weight, which however did not stop her from having fun, the lifeguards’ shout being part of her game in each new round down the slides.

So, what do people use archives for? (Please, choose only one answer from the list below): 

a) “To put toys that people might not have in 30 years”;

b) “To put chocolate (loads of it!)”;

c) “To show aliens how life on earth is like and make them wanna come and conquer it!”;

d) “To see what other people saw”;

e) “To learn that in the past, people can have better things and they can have worse things”;

f) All of the above.

All answers are sourced from the young research interlocutors’ speculations on the possible uses of archives.Borrowing from Lucie’s imagination, archives resemble time-capsules and can be used for all kinds of reasons, from saving chocolate (loads of it!), accepting the risk it will go bad by the time it’s finally consumed, to presenting aliens with scenarios of life on earth to help them decide whether they want to come and conquer us or not. The CPA can be understood as one such time capsule through which children’s photographs can travel through space and time are saved and made available for others, children and adults, to see. In this instance, the preservation and display of children’s heritage and memories is not undertaken by adults on children’s behalf, but as a collaborative process between the adult researchers and young interlocutors of the Connectors Study

In my short -and very much improvised- research experimentation, I used the CPA to frame memory in childhood and elicit children’s memories in collaboration with the young research interlocutors who helped me with my PhD research. As I revisit my fieldnotes and recordings, I also notice how the young interlocutors’ engagements with the archive ‘connect’ them with children from different geographies, ages, and cultures. I wonder whether such connections are facilitated when children engage with ideas and content created by other children rather than by adults.

The young interlocutors are intrigued by other children’s photographs of cats and other pets and animals. Such references, which adults can easily downplay or reduce to their ‘cuteness’, might as well reflect children’s political concerns and knowingness as these are linked to care for animals and nature more broadly (Nolas, 2021). These, and other references to the non-human found both in the CPA’s content and in my fieldwork conversations with children about their memories they deem important to be remembered, can be seen as disrupting both the epistemological humanism that underpins the foundation of childhood studies, and our developing explorations of memory in childhood.

Our experimentations with and through the CPA as a “memory device” (Harris, 2017) proved very helpful in eliciting individual memories and reflections around archives and remembering among the young research interlocutors. Considering the surging interest in children’s memories and memory in childhood, the CPA can be a useful tool to work with children towards the exploration of their individual, collective and social memories, but also better reveal the ways in which children engage with the individual memories of other children and the connection emerging between them and with other collective remembrances.

You can read more about Elina’s work in her 2021 article which appeared in the journal Jeneusse: Young People, Texts and Culture.

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