Modern Family: challenging the social construct of the family unit

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© Hoda, 2018, from the series False Idol, 2016–2020 © Leonard Suryajaya

A new book and accompanying exhibition draw on the work of 15 photographers who celebrate the family you choose, through kinship, love and support


“Families leave their mark,” writes Benjamin von Wyl in his essay, Families Every Which Way. “Like high foreheads, broad hips and funnel chests, traumas are passed down the generations – everything that went before, every story from the old days, plus all the things you can’t talk about. All of it gets deposited. In one sister it calcifies, in the other it simmers away on the back burner until the coagulated family sauce has shaped who you think you are.”

Wyl’s essay is one of seven that punctuate the new book Chosen Family, Less Alone Together, published by Christoph Merian Verlag, which accompanies the exhibition currently on show at Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. The project constellates 15 photographers, including Pixy Liao, Nan Goldin, Charlie Engman, Dayanita Singh, Diana Markosian and Mark Morrisroe, to challenge the social construct of family and explore its new iterations.

Pixy Liao, Some Words Are Just Between Us, 2010, from the series Experimental Relationship, 2007– © Pixy Liao

The term ‘chosen family’ originated in the LGBTQIA+ community to describe familiar relationships born out of necessity when people are rejected or disowned by their biological family. This profound and vital kinship manifests throughout our collective queer history, from the Harlem Drag Balls in the 1920s to the AIDs crisis in the 80s. Now it’s more broadly used by society to describe close bonds between people formed by choice. These relationships replicate the love and support of the family unit when biological relations are unavailable due to loss, proximity, trauma or simply incompatible needs.

The show builds on the draw of leading icons such as Nan Goldin, who presents her intimate series dedicated to actress and writer Cookie Mueller. The duo became friends in the summer of 1976 in Provincetown, and their friendship traversed different cities and continents until Mueller’s death due to AIDS complications in 1989. The images express a genuine bond, responding to big and full moments of life, from Mueller’s marriage to Vittorio Scarpati, her relationship with her son Max and her early death, imaging her lovingly decorated open casket. Like all of Goldin’s work, the act of photographing becomes part of a primal bond with her subjects, a love language that knows no boundaries and is omnipresent.

Charlie Engman, Mom with Kage, 2013, from the series MOM, 2009– © Charlie Engman
Charlie Engman, Blue Mom, 2017, from the series MOM, 2009– © Charlie Engman

Chosen Family celebrates complexity, inviting the viewer into a deeper questioning of the institution of family within society, its limitations and impacts. In Charlie Engman’s Mom, the artist collaborates with his mother, Kathleen, to challenge society’s often reductive perception of the nurturing mother. Together, they refuse to condense her identity and their relationship, insisting on the pluralities of existence. Pixy Liao builds on dismantling labels and fixed roles with her work Experimental Relationship. Through play and humour, she subverts the idealised dynamics of heterosexual relationships, shifting gender roles and undoing years of cultural conditioning. Both artists animate how the camera is a collaborative tool in rerooting the notion of family in more expansive terms.

For Alba Zari, the reality of family is entrenched in the Christian cult she was born into, known as The Children of God (now called The Family International). Founded in California by David Berg in 1968, the cult was reported to encourage sex with minors and force women into prostitution as a recruitment strategy. The practice also tragically separated the ‘Jesus Babies’ – the children conceived in the process – from their mothers. In Occult, Zari metabolises her personal experience through various sources, including cult propaganda, educational materials, comics, video stills and her family album. In this collision of materials, she uncovers the dissonance of belonging in the context of sexual abuse and colonial practices disguised as Christian evangelism.

The familiar bond is an indelible part of who we are. In refusing to condense the critical way it shapes how we move through the world, we can imagine new possibilities of togetherness. Through radically divergent visual languages, Chosen Family illuminates our instinct to belong, to live in community and declare loyalty to one another.

Dayanita Singh, On his arrival each eunuch was greeted by me with garland of jasmine flowers. Ayesha’s first birthday, 1990, from the series The Third Sex Portfolio, 1989–1999 © Dayanita Singh
Dayanita Singh, I get this strong urge to dance from within. Ayesha’s second birthday, 1991, from the series The Third Sex Portfolio, 1989–1999 © Dayanita Singh

Chosen Family – Less Alone Together is on show at the Fotomuseum Winterthur until 16 October 2022

Chosen Family – Less Alone Together is published by Christoph Merian Verlag, with texts by Lucy Gallun, Stefan Länzlinger, Nadine Wietlisbach, Benjamin von Wyl et al.

Leonard Suryajaya, from the series False Idol, 2016–2020. Installation view Chosen Family – Less Alone Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur © Fotomuseum Winterthur / Conradin Frei
Anne Morgenstern, from the series Whatever the Fuck You Want, 2018–2020. Installation view Chosen Family – Less Alone Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur © Fotomuseum Winterthur / Conradin Frei
Charlie Engman, from the series MOM, 2009–. Installation view Chosen Family – Less Alone Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur © Fotomuseum Winterthur / Conradin Frei
Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.