THEMATIC: Social History, Personal History

"Family Reunion from Family Pictures and Stories," 1978-84. Gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 13 inches. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Both social and personal histories influence our interpretation and understanding of the past. Carrie Mae Weems's work often refers to individual or family experiences, yet it also reflects her place within broader social systems. In her Art in the Twenty-First Century segment, Weems explains how the tension of race in America became an important part of her "own being." Watch the artist's segment, and discuss Weems's work in relationship to her personal and social history. How can personal moments and memories articulate or address a larger historical context?

Consider how other artists connect personal and social history in their work, including: Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Louis Bourgeois, and An-My Lê.

SEGMENT: Carrie Mae Weems in "Compassion"

Before Viewing
How is history perceived, shared, and taught? Research the term social history and discuss how this approach to history and historical research differs from history, traditionally defined and interpreted.

In what ways does personal or family history affect or influence our understanding of the past? What is the role of photography in documenting and constructing personal history?

While Viewing
List the historic events mentioned during this segment. In what ways are these events of American history significant for Weems, and why? In what ways are they significant to contemporary life and to you, and why?

After Viewing
How does Weems "construct" history? What techniques does she use to tell a larger story, through her work? How do these techniques represent historical events while also addressing the nature of history itself? What is the relationship between Weems's work and social history?

Through her work, Weems has examined the last forty years of her own life along with "all the amazing and horrific things" that are part of our collective history. What responsibilities and ethical roles does she take on as an artist, and how does she address the challenge of doing so?

Photograph a reconstruction or reenactment of an important moment in your own personal or family history, using friends or classmates as models. Tell the story in a text that accompanies the work. How does reenacting the event change your understanding of that moment in your own history? How do personal histories or social histories affect the present?