Recently, moving to New York from Miami, after living there for over two decades, with each box I packed I wrestled with what to let go and what to keep. There was no hesitation about the family photo-albums, many of which I’d inherited from my mother after she died eight years ago. Each plastic-sheathed photograph is unique, some taken in photography studios in Port-au-Prince, others with my father’s oversize camera in 1970s New York, and some Polaroids that had long faded, leaving behind only silhouettes. Those albums were a large part of my family’s history—baptisms, christenings, weddings, funerals, visits to Haiti, church celebrations, rare vacations—until cell phones came along.

That young people are now returning to film cameras and digital point-and-shoots, blending a world of old and new, makes work by the photographer Naomieh Jovin both of its time and timeless. Merging family archives with close-up and detailed photographs of body parts, Jovin employs the type of fragmentation and lacunae that the telling of intergenerational immigrant stories sometimes demands. She calls on present and past, clothed and unclothed, young and old, well and unwell, secular and religious bodies to create an arresting interconnected call-and-response visual narrative.

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Migration is rarely an individual affair. Jovin was born in Philadelphia to parents who immigrated to the United States from Haiti in the early 1980s. “Since middle school, I used to bring my baby album with me and sit at lunch flipping through the pages,” Jovin has said. “I loved looking at the amazing outfits my parents put me in for my birthdays. Dressed like a true Haitian baby! I also enjoyed looking back at old photographs and trying to figure out the story behind them.”

For first- or second-generation immigrants, the stories behind the photographs in our family albums are sometimes purposefully hidden from us, because they are too painful to tell. The people whose faces we are looking at might have been wounded in some way, either before or after these photographs were taken. As demonstrated by the cutouts in some of Jovin’s images, absence is as tangible as presence. The archival materials in the pictures, including the diplomas, the unopened bills, the ceramic animals and fruit, illustrate gaps that Jovin attempts to fill, at times, with incorporeal and disembodied hands, seemingly reaching out to take hold of these stories.

 Naomieh Jovin, Untitled, 2021

Naomieh Jovin, Untitled, 2021

Images like the ones in Jovin’s family albums are archived in many Haitian and Haitian-diaspora households, sometimes with notes scribbled on the back, often from lovers pleading from a distance not to be forgotten. With the photograph titled Madame Lucien (2021), of a young woman standing in front of a Japanese-garden backdrop, we expect that kind of sentiment. But Jovin tells us that the superimposed words are part of a breakup note from Madame Lucien: “Life is a flower and a blow. Very often, right next to joy, pleasure, and laughter, there are always tears and sorrow that bring ugliness and darkness to our existence. Because Life is made of separation, I must bend to the laws of nature.”

Often, when an older Haitian person dies, the picture chosen for the cover of their funeral program is of them in their prime, when they were at their most handsome or beautiful. We look at these faces from the present and the past and can’t help but wonder what our descendants might look like, who they will resemble, where they might live. How much of all this incidental archive might they let go of, and what might they keep? Will it be the indoor or outdoor pictures? Those portraits in the barbershop or living room? Or those out in nature, with flowing streams and rocks? Will it be the communion one or the nudes? Or will it be the fanfa, the funeral band accompanying the mourners and their massive bouquet of flowers to the cemetery?

In November 2020, a photo-essay by Jovin in The Nation made its way to me via friends and family WhatsApp groups. “There Is a Name for Women Like My Mother” read the headline. The piece was mainly about Jovin’s mother, but most Haitians know someone who’s been called gwo fanm—“big woman”— in either a complimentary or derogatory way. Jovin’s mother was in the favorable category. A smart dresser and hard worker who’d sponsored many family members to come to the United States, she died of breast cancer when Jovin was ten, making it understandable that Jovin would spend so much time looking at her baby album as a girl. These images were her way of communing with her mother and tout sa n pa wè yo, a Creole expression meaning “all those who are no longer visible, those who can no longer see.” That photo-album made Jovin’s mother visible to her.

“Even in death, she took up space,” Jovin writes.

She calls her project Gwo Fanm (2017–ongoing), describing a gwo fanm as “a woman who stands out in life and stands up for the ones they love. But a Gwo Fanm is also a woman who takes more than their fair share of the slings and arrows this world throws at them, absorbs hurt and pain that could crush less resilient or determined people.”

Jovin, too, is a gwo fanm, as an aunt once told her, based partly on her success as a photographer.

“So much of the immigrant experience is one of loss, loss of the community they leave behind, loss of the history in their home country,” Jovin writes. “By creating these photos of the women in my family, and reclaiming the images they made during their lifetimes, I hope to forestall this loss, to show the purpose and honor that defined their lives, and to actively create a new narrative for my generation.”

Naomieh Jovin, Untitled, 2021
Naomieh Jovin, Untitled (Daddy’s Toolbox), 2020
Naomieh Jovin, Untitled, 2022
Naomieh Jovin, Madame Lucien, 2021. All photographs from the series Gwo Fanm, 2017–ongoing
Courtesy the artist

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 254, “Counter Histories,” produced in collaboration with Magnum Foundation.

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