Reimagining a family’s history through its old snapshots

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Yodith Dammlash hails from a family of storytellers. Her parents and grandmother often told her tales of their childhoods in Ethiopia, before the political unrest in the 1970s changed the course of their adult lives. And although Dammlash and her sisters lived thousands of miles from most of the characters in those stories, the young girls could still see them. They were in the framed portraits hanging on the walls of their family’s home in Washington, D.C., and in the boxes of their mother’s voluminous archive of snapshots.

Calm | (Yodith Dammlash)

Dammlash, 30, now a photographer and archivist herself, took inspiration from her family’s oral histories and the rich archive of negatives and slides to create her ongoing project, The Names We Bear. “Using their stories, the good and the bad, to create well-rounded narratives, not just one of tragedy and struggle, has been a driving force in my work,” Dammlash said in an interview.

Dammlash digitized her mother’s collection of more than 300 images that span three decades dating back to the 1940s. Working from one image, she would pore through the archive to select its pair and then superimpose the two. “The two images should speak to each other,” she said, “recall a story about the subjects or their characteristics, or even reflect my own made up scenarios for the subjects.”

Dream | (Yodith Dammlash)

Some of Dammlash’s images evoke an aching nostalgia. In “Dream” (above), she tells the story of her uncle, who was the first in his family to leave Ethiopia and the loneliness he might have felt living by himself in a foreign land.

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In “Sisters” (below), Dammlash layers two portraits of two sets of girls — her mother (right) in the floral dress and her aunt (left), and their cousins. The four girls grew up together, as close as siblings. Years after these portraits were taken, one of the cousins was killed during the violent political movement in Ethiopia known as the Red Terror. But in Dammlash’s reimagining, the foursome are reunited, whole.

Sisters | (Yodith Dammlash)

Other composites are lighthearted and playful. In “Brothers” (below), her uncles swap jackets in the two superimposed portraits. “It tickles me how they essentially use the jackets as costume,” Dammlash said. “It reminds me that these photos originated from a delightful time in their lives.”

For Dammlash, this journey into her family’s past has been empowering both personally and artistically. “Very rarely do we see African narratives told through the lens of African people in the visual arts, even less so in photography,” she said. “Leave it to Western news and media and the continent of Africa is not portrayed very favorably.”

“This series is made to honor those who have passed,” she said, “to make sense of and peace with the stories I’ve been told over the years and to shed light on the multifaceted narrative of the Diaspora.”

Brothers | (Yodith Dammlash)

Namesake | (Yodith Dammlash)

To see more from The Names We Bear or any of Yodith Dammlash’s work, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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