This is one of my most prized possessions. It’s an old photograph that belonged to my great-grandmother. She’s the one standing second to the right.
I “informally” inherited it, as I had all of her photo albums filled with photos that were often “indefinitely borrowed” from other people’s albums. I laughed when I found some of my old photographs I thought I had lost long ago in one of her albums. Most of her oldest photographs were of our ancestors wearing beautiful clothing, posing or maybe sitting in an ornate chair with a drawn background, and always with the same emotionless stare that made you wonder if people back then even knew how to smile.
This is one of my favorite pictures because it depicts the rawness of the everyday lives of our ancestors. The women are all wearing hats or lenços. But for as long as I knew my great grandmother, she would quickly remove her lenço if she had visitors or was about to take a picture. It surprises me to see her here with a hat on her head.
I can’t help but notice that the two people standing on each end aren’t wearing shoes. But what’s more interesting is that you can’t see anyone else’s feet. Did they have shoes? Or were they just too embarrassed to show their bare, maybe worn feet for the camera? The women weren’t dressed in their very best, they weren’t posing by a fancy piece of furniture with a drawn backdrop. They weren’t all wearing the same somber stares. These people are actually smiling in this picture! Even Bibi looks like she’s struggling to contain her smile. And what is in that mug the woman standing next to Bibi is holding? Could a little grogue have something to do with those coy smiles???
When I look at photos like this, I wonder about who these people were, what their personalities may have been like, and how they were all related to one another. I notice what they’re wearing, their poses, their features including skin tones. I wonder if they were standing in the back or to the side because of their color or if it’s just a coincidence.
Photos like this can tell us more than what our ancestors looked like. For instance, the women standing in the middle of this particular photograph may be family elders and therefor placed in the middle as a symbol of respect. The way people are placed within photos may give clues to their status within their family or community.
I can spend hours pondering their individual stories!
Although I knew Bibi for the first 30 years of my life, I have come to realize that she never spoke much of the harshness of life in Brava. But this photo reminds me that she and her aunts may have been wearing black because within a span of less than 10 years she had lost both her parents and her husband. And it wasn’t very many years before that her grandparents and many other family members had died from starvation during one of the worst famines to hit Brava in the 1890’s.
I’d like to imagine this photo was taken taken on a sunny day by water, maybe in Feijão d’Agu. I imagine that Bibi and her family decided to perhaps forget all of their worries by spending it together, telling stories, with a picnic on the beach. For at least one day, the camera captured a moment of happiness.
I’m so grateful to have this treasure that allows me a glimpse into the everyday lives of my ancestors. I can’t help but feel blessed by my very comfortable life in the suburbs of Washington, DC in contrast to the stark depiction of life in this photograph. I am truly blessed.