Nina Velasco e Cruz


This article aims to use an analysis of three works by contemporary artists to discuss the complex relationship between family photographs and memory when removed from their everyday family context and placed in the field of art. One of the best-known social functions of photography is to serve as an aid to individual and collective memory. This becomes even more evident in the case of family photographs, which help construct a chronological narrative for a particular family group. However, what happens when these images are taken from their usual contexts (be it the homes of family members or museums and archives of daily life) to become part of works of art? This article will use the works Bibliotheca (2002) by Rosangela Rennó; I am my Family (2008) by Rafael Goldchain and Time Capsule (1997) by Eduardo Kac to reflect on how contemporary art can reveal new perspectives for this type of photographic practice.


The discussion of the artistic nature of photography and its insertion into the field of fine art dates back to the birth of the technology. Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay (1987) written to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the invention of photography, gives a brief history of the discourse surrounding the heated debate on the new technique’s legitimacy as an artistic tool. Clearly this is no longer a valid question today, a century and a half later, with the very concept of art having undergone significant changes (as Benjamin himself foresaw when writing on the impact of reproductive technologies, among them photography, on artistic works) and with modern art institutions long having dedicated substantial space to this kind of imagery.

Recently, the important role played by photography in contemporary art has been the subject of much discussion, leading some authors to consider the photograph as a metaphor or synonym[1] of contemporary artistic practice. For some authors, photography is not just a legitimate artistic technique, but also a synthesis of the aesthetic process that governs the entire production of contemporary art. Here, we are not referring to works by photographers who are considered artists or photographs gaining prestige as works of art (as seems to have happened in the 50s, after Steichen held the first major exhibition entirely dedicated to photography at the MOMA), but rather, and most importantly, the various hybrid practices that benefit from the logic of photography, with or without the images that result from this technique.

However, the reverse of this argument has been little explored: how can some works of contemporary art help us to reflect on the practice of vernacular photography? What happens when photographs, originally taken with no artistic pretensions in a home and family environment, are shifted to the context of the institution of art? More specifically, how do well-established social practices such as domestic photography and family albums gain new meaning when recontextualized by contemporary artists?

Several authors have pointed out the existence of a “memory culture” in current society, which can be seen through the recurrence of retro fashions, the restoration and revitalization of historical centers and the proliferation of documentaries and biographies, among many other examples[2]. In the field of contemporary art, it is also possible to identify a series of works that give prominence to the issue of memory, many of these using photographs. Christian Boltanski in an example of a world-renowned and consensual artist who has done just this.

The article outlines some thoughts regarding the complex relationship between family photographs and memory from the unconventional perspectives adopted by artists who work with this subject. Since the 60s, a number of artists have, in fact, been working in this direction[3]. From the vast amount of works available, we shall choose three artists who each use different strategies in their works, providing us with the scope to develop different theoretical and conceptual questions for artistic and photographic practice.

In Bibliotheca, Rosangela Rennó presents an installation made up of 37 acrylic tables, within which photographic albums are displayed with a description of their origin and date. On the walls of the gallery, a mapa-mundi shows the geographical locations where these albums were acquired by the artist. Also forming part of the installation is a metal archive cabinet containing catalog cards describing the content of each album as well as providing more detailed information about their history. Visitors to the exhibition do not have access to the interior of the albums, merely this verbal descriptive archive. Here we can already discern some reflections on the relationship between family albums and memory as well as between photographic images, narration, memory and imagination.

In I am my family, Rafael Goldchain presents a series of self-portraits created based on old photographs of his family. Descendant of a Jewish family from Poland, Rafael Goldchain (born in Argentina and living in Canada) seeks to recreate family ties lost over the course of his personal history through these photographs of his family predecessors. The images that make up the piece are highly theatrical, visibly posed and all with more or less the same type of aesthetic, inspired by the style of early twentieth-century portraits. Here, questions about representation, simulation or “playing”, portraits and memory are raised in an original and relevant manner.


Time-Capsule by Eduardo Kac is a performance piece, which was televised live, in which the artist inserts a chip containing personal information in the form of a bar code into his own ankle. Kac then registers himself with a satellite monitoring service normally used for tracking endangered animals. On the walls of the gallery room, nine sepia photographs are displayed showing members of his family enjoying leisure time in Poland, prior to the war, which resulted in their death or exile. Through this work the artist articulates concepts such as virtual memory, post-memory and control in contemporary society.

Family albums and memory: Bibliotheca

If, on one hand, we can say that, since its invention, photography and memory have always been linked, on the other, we cannot say that photography is memory[4]. However, one of the main functions of domestic photography is to serve as a memory aid for the family group. Family photo albums help to construct an individual and collective identity through the references created by the images and the oral narrative that accompanies them[5].

The practice of organizing photos into albums goes back to photography’s very beginnings. The first commercial photo albums, however, only appeared with the popularization of portrait photography following the invention of Disdéri’s cartes-de-visite. From 1860, these albums began to contain studio-produced images and become part of the furniture of bourgeois family living rooms[6]. With the emergence of the so-called “Kodak culture”[7] in the early twentieth century, family albums lost their ostentatious nature and began to be filled with snapshots of everyday life. Nevertheless, the logic of the collector was still apparent, with rare moments such as parties, vacations, rites of passage etc. being the subject of focus. Despite having undergone several changes during its century of existence, the album remains a privileged place for constructing the family narrative, acting as a memory aid for the individual members.

However, when family albums leave the private domain of the family, the historical family environment and the web of relations and knowledge from which they originate, the way in which they are interpreted changes and they now become a figuration of a particular era[8]. In the context of “memory culture”, these photographs are now found in iconographic museum collections, which aim to safeguard the visual memory of the mores of the time, place and culture from which they came, or are even sold and consumed in antique fairs as relics or objects to be collected and adored.

Rosangela Rennó is admittedly a collector. One of her obsessions is to collect family albums of anonymous subjects, purchased in public markets in the cities she visits on her travels. The installation Bibliotheca uses part of this collection in an unusual and disconcerting way. The artist places dozens of photo albums in acrylic display cases, reproducing the covers on the top of these cases. The public can see the materiality of the albums through the sides of the display cases, but is prevented from touching them, as is often the case in exhibitions of historical documents. Their covers, however, give us clues as to the era and subject of each album, alluding to the intimate repertoire of the public, whose families possibly have similar looking albums or who have flicked through similar albums of others. The metal archive cabinet that forms part of the installation offers information on each album: quantity of pages and photos, state of conservation and a narrative created from the images. It is unknown whether this narrative is fictitious or true, but it is the only means for us to catch a glimpse of the photos that are in front of us, but to which we are denied access.

View of instalation Bibliotheca (2002), Rosangela Rennó

Martha Langford, in her analysis of the collection of photo albums at the McCord Museum of Canadian History[9], highlights the importance that oral narration plays in this social practice. An album functions as a memory aid for a narration and its structure resembles more the logic of oral discourse than the linearity that governs written discourse. In her research, Langford collects several interviews prompted by albums about which there is little known information beyond the images themselves contained within. Despite not necessarily corresponding to the original history that gave rise to each album, all interviewees were able to create coherent narratives connecting the images presented with their own personal memories.

One can assume that the records describing the history of each album displayed in the gallery are the product of Rosangela Rennó’s subjective reading of the photos they contain. The public is led to share this reading, but also to create a remembrance of their own through the images formed by the artist’s narrative. Here we have a two-way street: the photographic images generate verbal images that generate mental images. Memory and imagination, two similar mental processes[10], are triggered at the same time, blurring the line where one starts and the other ends. When reading the imaginary narration created by Rennó from the photos, the observer creates mental images corresponding to his or her own memory.

Thus, the collection of albums presented by Rosangela Rennó goes further towards realizing the universalizing intention underlying every collection project by omitting the particularity of the photographic images and by using the memory of each subject/observer to multiply the potential images they can depict. Unlike the humanistic universalism present in Edward Steichen’s famous exhibition The Family of Man, in which the great variety of images (taken in various countries from all continents) aims to highlight the similarity that characterizes human nature, Rennó’s collection seeks to achieve universality through the sum of all differences, leaving each individual the task of creating their own images.

I am my family: “this-has-been-played” or “this-has-been”?

Roland Barthes’ view of photography is already well known from the two texts the author wrote on the subject (The Photographic Message and Camera Lucida). If at first, Barthes shows he is still strongly committed to the structuralist method by asserting that photography is a message without code, the book written in the style of an essay that seeks to further explore his thoughts on photography proves somewhat less categorical. Deliberately devoid of a systematic and reductive methodology, Camera Lucida proposed a method to balance the debate between the subjective and the scientific that, for Barthes, would not resolve the issue of that specific object: the photograph. Despite believing that the nature of photography lies in its referential power, summarized in the noema ça a été“(“that-has-been”), this essence was only revealed from a single private photograph (so private that it was never shown to the public), the “only photo that in fact existed” for the author[11]. For all the criticism received by what would be the “essentialist view” of Roland Barthes[12], this reference to his book constantly appears in studies on family photographs[13]. Perhaps this is precisely because it was a family photograph of his mother aged five with her brother in a winter garden that provided the key to constructing his ontology.

François Soulages, in his bid to find what would be the “photographic aesthetic”, however, suggests the Barthesian noema be amended. He believes photography is not characterized by “that-has-been”, but rather by “ça a été joué” (“that-has-been-played”)[14]. The author uses Cameron’s work to highlight the theatrical nature of every depicted object. From what he calls the “aesthetic of the portrait and the ‘playing'”, in which theatricalization is an “unavoidable” process[15], Soulages aims to arrive at a “general aesthetic of ‘that-has-been-played'”[16], which characterizes the entire aesthetic of photography. The work by Rafael Goldchain causes us to reflect on the boundaries between “that-has-been” and “that-has-been-played”.

Goldchain tells us that this work arose from a desire to pass on his cultural family heritage to his youngest child. Born into a Jewish family in Poland that spread out around several American countries during the persecution following World War I, Goldchain spent his childhood and adolescence in Santiago, Chile, in a secular family in which little was said about the past. As an adult, Rafael emigrated twice, first to Israel where he attended a Zionist university and later to Canada in order to study art and photography. The artist himself ascribes his preoccupation with the question of identity and his origins to this condition of exile[17].

The one hundred self-portraits that comprise I am my family are part of this research. From a handful of family portraits recovered from relatives spread out in several countries and his own memories and post-memories, the artist creates a kind of family typology. He represents various characters, some entirely imaginary, inspired by stories told by his parents, and others based on the few photographs of his ancestors that he has managed to recover. Despite the characters featured being convincingly represented (clothes, makeup, pose, accessories, post-production all very believable), at no time is the observer led to believe in the veracity of these photographs. The theatricality is explicit, both due to the neutral backdrop against which the artist poses and the contemporary nature of the photographs. No effort has been made to make the photos look aged. It is immediately obvious that these are recent photographs.[18] Even the title of the exhibition serves to remove any doubts: we are facing the artist himself, as the first person pronoun indicates.

Self-portrait as Doña Balbina Baumfeld Szpiegel de Rubinstein (2008), Rafael Goldchain

Here, the simulation or “playing” of these photos evinces a much-debated process concerning memory: the fact that it does not necessarily correspond to that which happened[19]. Photography and memory can be misleading, but not deceitful. What matters is not the faithfulness of the image (mental or photographic) with the past event, but the imaginative and emotional connection between the two. It was not just any photograph that reunited Barthes with his mother; only that particular photo formed this connection. In the case of Goldchain’s self-portraits, we are aware that we are not looking at actual images of his ancestors, but this does not prevent us from sharing his visual memory.

The piece also highlights the function that both memory and photography play in the construction of individual identity. Celia Lury[20] suggests that, just like how the creation of narratives aimed at remembrance played a key role in the process of individualization, the proliferation and ubiquity of images in modern times have been prerequisites for constructing the modern subject. Photography would fulfill a significant role in this process by allowing the subjects to establish themselves as objects.

Goldchain performs an interesting exercise in self-reflection through the research he carried out on his genealogical origins, finding elements in the past images of his ancestors that live on in his own facial features.  The encounter between these two moments in time occurs as much in the iconographic research published in the book resulting from the installation as in the final results of the self-portraits themselves.


Time Capsules: photography, digital technology and memory

The artistic career of Eduardo Kac has not prioritized photography as an expressive medium. Affiliated to the so-called media art genre, his research usually centers on the issues that new technologies pose to the artistic world. His best-known works are part of what the artist himself calls Transgenic Art, a field controversial for overlapping art and science as well as for dealing with ethical questions about how far it is permissible for man to intervene in the process of creating life. However, Time-Capsule is of particular interest due to its reflection on time and memory, evident from its title and the presence of old photographic images in the gallery.

The installation-event occurred simultaneously at Casa das Rosas (São Paulo), on Brazilian national television and virtually on the Internet. In the gallery, there was a stretcher, seven sepia photographs taken in Eastern Europe in the 30s, a computer and a robotic finger connected to a microchip scanner. The artist inserted a microchip into his own ankle with a special needle and then scanned the implant generating a unique 16-character signal. Kac then registered himself via the Web in a database used to track animals. Here Kac is clearly making a critique of the society of control[21], in which digital technology plays an important role. However, the question raised about the concept of memory is done in a subtler manner.

The photos displayed on the walls of the room are part of the artist’s personal collection and are what he calls “family mementos”. These photos show his ancestors enjoying leisure time in Poland before the persecution of World War II. These are moments that the artist himself did not witness, but to which he has a strong emotional relationship through the memory inherited from the narrative of his parents and the photographs.

Sepia photo, Eduardo Kac, showed at Casa das Rosas Gallery, SP (1997)

Kac wishes to contrast two ways to encapsulate time, one modern (photography) and the other contemporary (the chip). For the artist, photography functioned as a kind of social “time capsule” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the artist believes that photography’s power as a force of truth was being undermined by digital technology and the growth in the quantity of images at the turn of the century. The increasingly common nature of the manipulation of digital photographs and of the body itself, with surgical procedures becoming more affordable, leads to a growing distrust in the representational power of the image as a basis for memory and personal and collective identity. Indeed, the malleability of the photograph with the advent of digital technology has resumed the discussion on its essence prompting some authors to claim there has been a radical ontological change[22].

Lister[23], however, recalls that the discussion of digital technology’s threat to photographic practice in the 90s placed too much emphasis on the technology. For him, there would now be consensus among several authors (he cites Rosler: 1991; Robins: 1996; Kember: 1996; Lister: 1995 and Slater: 1995) that the technology could not be understood outside of its cultural usage and isolated from historical circumstances and that digital technology’s impact had been overestimated. With regard to the production of family images, digital technology does not seem to have fundamentally changed people’s trust in the indexical power of the photographic image. Gillian Rose[24], in a recent study on the practice of domestic photography, believes that one of the main reasons the traditional form of family photography survives today is precisely because of its indexical nature.

In Time-Capsule, the chip functioned as a contemporary time capsule, a kind of external memory coupled to the artist’s body. Kac thus leads us to consider the impact of digital technology on the very concept of memory. The term “digital memory” naturally assigns a mental and subjective function to appliances and devices. The usual model of digital memory as a means for data storage has been augmented by the possibility to store and delete, download and upload, to recollect and project or invent[25].

The concept of mediated memory appears relevant here. Van Dijck[26] does not distinguish ‘true’ or mental memory from ‘false’ memory or memory that has been distorted by technology. This concept attempts to account for the lack of distinction between one and the other, in that not only do the mediums transform the past event, but we also choose and create certain technologies based on a particular cultural logic.

What is interesting in Kac’s piece is precisely the co-existence of these two forms of mediated memory: on one hand, the photographs provide access to the externalization of the artist’s memory (or post-memory) and, on the other, the chip functions as a form of external memory that becomes internalized through the surgical procedure. Either way, these are mediated memories, as conceptualized by van Dijck.

Final thoughts

As mentioned earlier, the intention of this article was to outline some thoughts on family photography using works of contemporary art. We touched on some key points regarding one of the principal functions of this practice: memory. This subject appears particularly relevant in the context of today, on one hand, due to the frequency with which the issue of memory has been appearing in contemporary cultural studies and, on the other, by the widespread distrust in the medium of photography as a memory object[27] (van Dijck) with the advent of digital technology.

In the case of the installation by Rosangela Rennó, the presence of family albums in their traditional analog format seemingly centers the discussion on the social role of photo albums, which has already been considerably explored. However, the denial of access to the photographic images and the presence of an archive cabinet containing information on them renders an analysis of this work useful for reflecting on the important role narration plays in using photography as an entry point to the past and also integrates this practice into a collective social institution aimed at remembrance: the archive. The artistic process of taking these objects and ascribing new meaning to them in the installation through their manner of exhibition creates new perspectives, expanding the range of questions to be considered by those interested in the study of visual culture.

The piece by Rafael Goldchain directly challenges two traditional photographic processes: family portraits and self-portraits. By creating a series of disconcertingly theatricalized self-portraits, Goldchain emphasizes something that is apparently not part of the social practice of family photography: simulation or “playing”. However, as we have discussed, there is constant tension in the photographic aesthetic between “that-has-been” and “that-has-been-played”, from which family photography cannot escape. This tension is also present in the mental process of memory itself, which at times is confused with the action of imagining.

Eduardo Kac’s experiment is of particular interest as it updates the issue of memory to incorporate the advent of digital technology. By contrasting sepia family photographs from the early twentieth century with the chip inserted into his body, Kac seeks to lay bare the differences between two different ways of encapsulating time. For the artist, the photos that function as the object and representation of his post-memory are complemented by the new form of mediated memory provided by digital technology. The discussion of the loss of photography’s indexical nature with the malleability of digital images is thus placed in the context of the social practice of photography as an aid for maintaining family integration and memory.


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———. Image-Music-Text. Edited by Stephen Heath. Fontana, 1984.

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———. “Snapshots ‘r’ us: the evidentiary problematic of home media.” Visual Studies 17, no. 2 (2002): 141–149.

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Kac, Eduardo. “Time-capsule”, n.d.

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———. Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

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———. Retratos De Família: Leitura Da Fotografia Histórica. São Paulo: Edusp, 1993.

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———. “What Do the Images Do”, Winter 1998.

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[1] Phillipe Dubois, O Ato Fotográfico (Campinas: Papirus, n.d.); Andre Rouillé, A Fotografia: Entre Documento e Arte Contemporânea, Senac São Paulo. (São Paulo, 2009); Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph As Contemporary Art 2e, 2nd Revised ed. (Thames and Hudson, 2009); François Soulages, Estética Da Fotografia – Perda e Permanência, Senac São Paulo. (São Paulo, 2010).

[2] Andreas Huyssen, Seduzidos Pela Memória – Arquitetura, Monumentos, Mídia (Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano, 2000); Beatriz Sarlo, Siete Ensayos Sobre Walter Benjamin, ed. (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2008); J LeGoff, História e Memória (São Paulo: Editora da Unicamp, n.d.); Éric Méchoulan, La culture de la mémoire, ou, Comment se débarrasser du passé? (Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2008).

[3] Martha Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 23.

[4] Geoffrey Batchen, Forget me not photography & remembrance (Amsterdam; New York: Van Gogh Museum ; Princeton Architectural Press, 2004); Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums.

[5] Martha Langford, “Speaking the Album,” in Locating Memory: Photographic Acts, ed. Annette Kuhn and Kirsten McAllister (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006); Gillian Rose, Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, The Public and The Politics of Sentiment (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2010).

[6] Langford, “Speaking the Album,” 23.

[7] Richard Chalfen, Snapshot versions of life (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987).

[8] Miriam L. Moreira Leite, Retratos De Família: Leitura Da Fotografia Histórica (São Paulo: Edusp, 1993).

[9] Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums.

[10] Mary Warnock, “Memory: The Triumph over Time,” MLN 109, no. 5 (1994): 940.

[11] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, ed. Stephen Heath (Fontana, 1984), 109.

[12] John Tagg, “What Do the Images Do”, Winter 1998; Antonio Fatorelli, Fotografia e Viagem: Entre a Natureza e o Artifício (Rio de Janeiro: Relume-Dumará, 2003); Martin Lister, La Imagen Fotografica En La Cultura Digital / The Photographic Image in Digital Culture (Barcelona: Paidos Iberica Ediciones S a, 1997).

[13] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums; Rose, Doing Family Photography.

[14] Soulages, Estética Da Fotografia – Perda e Permanência, 63.

[15] Ibid., 67–71.

[16] Ibid., 74.

[17] Raphael Goldchain, I Am My Family, 2008, 16–18.

[18] In other works, such as Amor e Felicidade no Casamento (Love and Happiness in Marriage) (2007) by Jonathas de Andrade, the appearance of the passage of time has been created through image manipulation, simulating the deterioration of the photos in post-production (

[19] Warnock, “Memory.”

[20] Celia Lury, Prosthetic culture : photography, memory and identity (London: Routledge, 1998), 105.

[21] An issue previously discussed (Cruz, 2004, p. 94).

[22] Rouillé, A Fotografia: Entre Documento e Arte Contemporânea; Soulages, Estética Da Fotografia – Perda e Permanência.

[23] Lister, La Imagen Fotografica En La Cultura Digital / The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, 252.

[24] Rose, Doing Family Photography.

[25] José van Dijck, Mediated memories in the digital age (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 50.

[26] Ibid., 28.

[27] van Dijck, Mediated memories in the digital age.