In the fall of 2013 and again in 2015, I traveled to Romania to make pictures and explore my heritage. I had the opportunity to visit a small community near where my grandparents had lived. While there, I questioned what my family had lost upon immigrating to the U.S. and what they had gained. Certain family traditions, evident in the village, had not translated into American life. As I interacted with the people, it became clear that in order to understand the culture and my place in it, I needed to immerse myself completely into the scenarios before me.
I Am My Ancestors, combines various photographic styles, embracing reportage, self-portraiture, fictional narrative and family snapshots. It brings the viewer to Romania on a search for family history and cultural identity, while asking questions about the validity of tradition and the effects of immigration on subsequent generations. The scenes take place in real people’s homes, yards or fields, incorporating present-day situations with imagined realities.
All my life I have been curious about the Romanian side of my family, but have had little information about it. My father’s early death, discrepancies in family stories, and a lack of documents, especially photographs, have limited my knowledge. And although I felt a distant kinship with the people I met there, I wandered how deeply I could actually become a part of the culture. My lack of familiarity with their customs and the language was evident; I was of this place but not from it.
Ultimately, I hope these images express the desire, yet awkwardness of trying to connect with one’s ancestors. One may question whether or not this relation really matters. Still, I continue, along with countless other people, to search websites and ancestry blogs in hopes to discover more about my family background. Perhaps it is hardwired in humans to want to understand those who have gone before us; to know who they were, what made them laugh, what their work was like, the things they ate, what rituals were important to them. Perhaps it helps to satisfy that universal urge to find out where we come from.
By Emily Matyas