As part of our project – to help us think about families and their pets in the past – we’ve been asking members of the public to share their family and pet photographs with us and with other users on Instagram. The research team have even joined in – welcoming a chance to delve into their own family albums and to share them on the site.
Looking at people’s pet photographs and how they describe them can help us understand the role pets play in family and emotional life – and we can start to think about the connections between pets and the stories we tell about our families.
This is an informal public engagement project for us, and not an academic exercise, but so far we’ve shared c.60 images and we’re still collecting them.
Many of the Instagram users who have shared their pictures of pets wrote a few lines about their photographs, showing why these images mattered to them and how pets were used to remember family life.
Oral historians have shown how important photographs can be when people remember their lives and create narratives about them. Photographs can construct, disrupt and shape stories of family life.
The images shared here – and the stories attached to them – suggest that pet photographs often have a special role in helping people remember and create narratives. So what has come out of the images and commentary we’ve seen so far?
Talking about pets can often lead us to reflect on the passage of time – especially as animals usually have shorter lifespans than humans. The lifetime of a pet might encompass a particular phase in the life of the family, childhood or perhaps teenage years.
As Hilda Kean noted in her recent study of pet keeping during the Second World War pets are often an important part of peoples’ stories of their childhood.
The moments when families were joined by pets are often remembered – as well as the times when they departed. These points in time are often linked to other changes in the life-cycle of the family.
The arrival of pets was often associated with the arrival of children.
Changes in the family could also be reason for the departure of pets, as Katie’s story of Susan the Boxer demonstrates.
Reflecting on our memories of pets in families can help us access childhood memories of relatives who have passed away.
And they can also help us remember the activities and characters of members of the family, as well as our own connections to them.
Sometimes the fact that the photograph itself as a physical object is important to the way that we remember somebody. Some historians and anthropologists have written about this – and the need to remember that the physical form of photographs – where we put them and what we do with them – shapes what they mean to us.
For example, Ruth from Colchester tells us that she has carried around a photograph of her grandfather’s Scottie since his death. This pet image has become an important way of remembering her grandfather.
Stories about pets can connect different generations. Passing down these stories can help keep memories of previous generations alive. Katie remembered being told about her Great Uncle Den and Jet, the angry Alsatian…
Keeping hold of and looking at family and pet photographs from the relatively distant past – from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when informal photography was beginning to be popular – can help us understand the lives of family members we have never actually met – and reflect on the nature of their lives.
As a part of our research project we are collecting and analysing pet photographs from families in the past – often framed in photograph albums or grouped together in sets of family papers. Looking at what people do with their photographs today – and how they use images – can help us think about the emotional value of past photographs too.
Of course – the photographs themselves would have been seen very differently by early twentieth century women and men. Photography was still a scarce resource – poorer people might have only one or two or perhaps no photographs of themselves. A far cry from today’s world of Instagram and digital images. Yet the culture of family and pet photography that we know today was just emerging – and pets were starting to be an important feature of family photograph collections.
This blog was written by Professor Jane Hamlett.