Thomas Allen Harris Discusses Visual Story-Telling @ the Schomburg Center

On August 7th, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture welcomed me to present excerpts from my various films as a compliment to their Gordon Parks: 100 Moments exhibition currently on view.

Thomas Allen Harris (on stage) shared the presentation on how he has been working on his documentaries for almost a decade at American Negro Theatre in Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. Mr. Harris is showing the audience a preview of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) SocialNet.

In Focus: Telling African American Stories with Film and Photography, is a lecture-screening-performance project that I have been working on for a number of years and is focused on engaging and challenging audiences to re-think their personal photographic archives as story-telling tools. The goal of the piece is to inspire and provoke folks to use the archive to educate, illuminate and transform our understanding of history and the present.

E Minha Cara / That’s My Face, which had won 8 awards including Tribeca Film Festival, is a mytho-poetic odyssey exploring identity and spirituality across three generations of an African-American family throughout the U.S.A., East Africa and Brazil.

I began the program with clips from two earlier films, E Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001) and Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2005), and described how they led up to my current film, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, a documentary for PBS currently in post-production; I then closed the program with webisodes from the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) Roadshow series.

The clips from E Minha Cara/That’s My Face explored my Grandfather’s obsession with documenting his family and the extended community – using photography, audio tapes and super 8mm film.

The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela

The archive he created visually connected our family to a time when African-Americans began to embrace their African history and cultural roots through clothing, hairstyles and in popular culture, such as TV shows that he recorded on a Super 8 in the 1960s and 1970s. In Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela my stepfather, Pule Leinaeng, used photography and later radio and video in his fight against the South African’s apartheid system. His visual narrative parallels the way African-Americans used the image and media as a tool for social change in this country, which is the subject of my new film; Through a Lens Darkly and the companion project Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) both focus on images and the stories behind them, which have been hidden and ignored within the larger American family album.

Guests watch the excerpt from DDFR RoadShow.

It was great to see the films together – speaking to one another and to the audience as a whole who were both excited and enthralled. It was a real learning experience in terms of what the audience connected to and how they related it to their own lives as well as the archives within their families. Someone once said that they saw DDFR as a virtual museum. This was underscored last night in audience questions, desires and willingness to participate both as consumers as well as producers. Their questions revealed their excitement around the possibility of preserving and creating their own family/community archives – as you can see below:

One of the audience members mentioned that she was a photographer who had been taking photographs for over 15 years but was inhibited in showing them, and we offered to help get her material into the public.

Below is the excerpts from the Q & A session.

Q 1: What is the best way to interview an older relative?

A 1: Anyway is the right way as long as you take the time to sit down and do it!

Q 2: I have a bunch of Super 8 material and want to know if could upload them to our site.

A 2: Absolutely! You can upload your material on YouTube and we can link to it and possibly do an article on it.

Q 3: What if you have a box of images of ancestors and don’t know their names or stories?

A 3: Watch out for the DDFR webisode featuring Glora Kirk, who lived with boxes of images of strangers until they began to speak to her and led her to create photo collages depicting their stories, soon to be released on

Q 4: When is the completed film going to be released and broadcasted?

A 4: We don’t have an exact air date yet, but definitely going to be in 2013.

Q 5: How long did it take to research and gather the archival photographs in the film?

A 5: 5 years and we are still continuing. I am so blessed to be working with film producers Deborah Willis and Ann Bennett!

It was also great to see such a diverse audience – young and old, artists and teachers, scholars and hipsters from all over New York City and beyond.

The event sold out in 24-hours after Schomburg announced it so I was really curious to see who was going to be in the audience — something that every filmmaker wonders. I knew some of the people in the audience such as Xenobia Bailey, Duron Jackson, Una Kariim, Cheryl Davis, writer Yael Friedman, and Cheryl Boldern currently visiting from Paris, France.

Audience applauding at the close of the program.

After the event, I got a chance to meet some new folks such as a woman whose Father had been a doctor to a lot of the Harlem celebrities, another woman who has several tin types of her ancestors, a former nurse from Staten Island (one of the legendary Black Angels nurses who worked for Seaview hospital) who invited us to come to Staten Island for a DDFR Roadshow telling me about all the amazing African American history. I told her we were already planning to go and that we were also interested in the new immigrant communities there as well as a teacher from Brooklyn that works with at-risk youth who spoke about his use of photographs to heal trauma.

Thomas Allen Harris (center) had a brief conversation with Cheryl Boldern of Precious Cargo and Xenobia Bailey, an artist.

I am grateful for this opportunity as well as for DDFR as it is helping us to build our audience even before the theatrical release and PBS broadcast of our Through A Lens Darkly!

One of the highlights of the evening was showing one of the newest DDFR webisodes featuring our Roadshow at the Gowanus Houses in Brooklyn. We presented the DDFR Roadshow with Healthy Families Brooklyn and the piece features a group of friends who are sharing their family photographs with one another for the first time. You could feel the love bouncing off the screen and also from the audience. When I stopped the clip, someone from the back of the audience yelled “Good Work!”

I left inspired and humbled.

Thomas Allen Harris,

Founder and Director of Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.


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