By Catherine Mirra

When does a movie become a movement?  Ask Thomas Allen Harris, a Time Warner Foundation-supported artist whose film, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  His film is a part of Sundance’s New Frontier category, a unique element of Sundance that showcases media installations, multimedia performances, transmedia experiences, panel discussions, and more.  Accompanying Harris’ film is the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, a transmedia exhibit and online project which has already toured five U.S. cities and held 13 live events since 2009.

Harris is an alumnus of the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) and its Tribeca All Access (TAA) program, which offers support and guidance to up-and-coming filmmakers.  The Time Warner Foundation is a major supporter of TAA, and works closely with the program to discover and nurture the next generation of storytellers.  The program provides filmmakers with grants and professional development, enabling them to complete their films and get them silver screen-ready.  

“(Tribeca All Access) was an amazing opportunity. I developed relationships with other filmmakers and programmers at Tribeca who I still have strong relationships with today,” says Harris.  “One of the hallmarks of the Tribeca All Access program are those relationships.”

Harris was a photographer in 2003 when his friend, Deborah Willis, a professor at NYU, asked if he would be interested in doing a film inspired by her book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.  He had already been thinking of doing a film that explored the history of African Americans in photographs, as he comes from a family of photographers (his grandfather was a photographer and his brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, is a photographer who is interviewed in the film), so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  “This film,” he says, “is the culmination of a 10-year journey.”

Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People explores the way African American photographers – and their subjects – have used the camera as a tool for social change from the invention of photography to present day.  “I always knew I wanted do a transmedia project with this film,” says Harris.  “Transmedia” refers to telling a story or experience across multiple digital platforms, and that’s exactly what Digital Diaspora Family Reunion has done, and continues to do.  The project invites audiences to share family photographs and participate in the creation of a national family archive that can form communities.  Harris calls it, “a cross between Antiques Road Show and StoryCorps.” 

“Because of segregation, most people are not aware of a visual history of African American families and what that looks like,” says Harris.  “Growing up, I was always aware of the images we have in our home and how different they were from images I saw outside my house or on TV…I was aware of how our families saw ourselves, but also how the country saw us.”

At its start, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion focused on collecting photos of African American families. “Our goal is to create a movement where people can use their family photographs to entertain, educate, and illuminate,” Harris explains.  “Initially, we started out focusing on African Americans because those are the archives that had been hidden, but I was also very much interested in having something that was open, and that was thinking about identity as inclusive as opposed to exclusive. So, that’s why I called it 'Digital Diaspora.'” 

As the roadshow traveled to different cities, people from other cultures, such as Jewish Americans and Latin Americans, began to embrace the concept.  “We had all these people who were not African America coming in sharing their pictures,” said Harris. “It became this American kind of family narrative, but with African Americans in some ways at the heart of it because of where we started.” 

Festival goers can attend the interactive exhibit at Sundance this week, but you don’t have to be in Park City, Utah, to experience the Digital Diaspora Roadshow. “The inspiration for the installation show at Sundance is all these different people coming together to create ‘one world, one family,’” says Harris.  “That’s actually the tagline for our Instagram campaign.”  You can take part in the Digital Diaspora Roadshow at Sundance by uploading a family photograph to your personal account with the hashtag #DDFRtv or #1World1Family. 

DDFR has conducted more than 600 interviews and gathered over 6,500 photographs since its inception, which are part of a virtual user-generated family photo album that compliments the context of the film. 

“What one really sees in Digital Diaspora when you’re at these live public events that are multigenerational and multiracial, is that we have more in common than our differences.”

Catherine Mirra is Manager, Corporate Communications, for Time Warner Inc.