A family portrait that explores identity, Black representation and authorship

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All images © Ryan Prince.

Ryan Prince considers the importance of visualising candid, familial moments to contribute to the photographic archive and counter the monolithic perception of Blackness

“I’d been thinking about what it meant to develop your own voice,” said Carrie Mae Weems in an interview for Art21 in 2011. “The Kitchen Table Series started  in a curious way as my response to what needed to happen, what needed to be. I made [the images] in my house with a single light source, and it swung open this door of possibility of what I could actually do in my own environment.” She continued, “These ideas about the spaces of domesticity, which have historically belonged to women, are the site of the battle around the family. The battle between the sexes. [It] all plays out around that space.”

Weems’ landmark series remains poignant today, over 30 years since she made it. The photographs speak to the ways in which selfhood shifts over time, the roles we play and the social contract of intimate relationships. While Weems focused on women and how they occupy space around the world, London-based Ryan Prince builds on the lineage of The Kitchen Table Series to explore identity, representation and authorship, and familiar mythology in his work Can You Sit for Me?.

“The project is about showing a typology of a modern Black British family,” says Prince. “I was interested in subverting 19th-century ethnographic photography to challenge the racialised gaze. Creating positive imagery plays a vital part in that. On one level, the work is about exploring my family, but I’m also interested in visualising a Black family free from stereotypes.” 

Prince began photographing his family while studying for an MA at the University of Westminster in 2019. A supportive tutor pushed him to interrogate the personal, so he started documenting his stepdad, Mark. He photographed Mark relaxing with his friends as they reflected upon their experiences growing up in Jamaica, as well as taking care of his mother Estalla, Prince’s grandmother. “I’d never seen that side of my dad and grandma’s relationship before,” he shares. “It led me to contemplate the bond I share with my mother and how it shaped who I am. I’ve been [going to] therapy for the last four years, and I’ve learned a lot about myself through this intentional interrogation of my upbringing and familial relationships.”

Prince lets us into the dissonance of family life by sequencing formal portraits of each family member with casual moments of play and interaction. While the photographs are striking, it is the tension between them that holds space for nuance and allows for new narratives to emerge. Prince’s fascination with the pioneering child and family psychiatrist John Byng-Hall and his idea of the ‘familial mythology’ informed this approach. The notion that family members perceive events differently and how that leads to false or edited beliefs that alter long-term relationships, affect self perceptions and reshape family history.

While Can You Sit for Me? allows us into Prince’s experience of the domestic space, it also speaks to the power of the everyday and how the ritual of family photography has played a critical role in the visual archive of Black life. Vernacular photography has been a site of identity formation and self-determination for generations sitting in opposition to the colonial project. It is also a space of innocence and joy, a place to be free from the baggage of precarity. 

“For me, there are two veins of photographic history of Black people,” says Prince. “The images used to oppress us and the hidden history of Black life that lives in family albums. The latter, full of everyday moments, celebrations and gatherings, has always been there. We just don’t see this history publicly. There is a big push right now of Black creatives trying to tell their story and what it means to them to counter this perception of Blackness as a monolith. With Can You Sit for Me?, I’m trying to add to that collective consciousness.“

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.