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The fake great-grandmother

I still remember my father coming home one day with an anonymous photo he’d got from a flea market and promptly using it as a substitute for my great-grandmother, whose photo was missing from the densely covered wall of family photos in our living room. The photo showed an old woman with a stern expression; I remember my father saying with great enthusiasm that it was a perfect match. The gap was thus filled, our photographic family tree once again tidy and complete. Sometimes I used to think that my great-grandfather could just have easily met, grown to love and maybe even married the women in the photo, albeit by chance.

The idea of trying to capture the chance nature of lifewithin a photo was something that remained dormant in my head for some time. On a bright morning in 2005, while I was in Tokyo, I grabbed my camera, went out on to the street and started “inventing” families - selecting individual people who happened to be walking past and then arranging them in front of the camera as if they were a family.

I felt like I was playing God or like I’d finally invented a time machine.

The family photos created as part of the Family Constellation Project do not correspond to a coherent or uniform image of the family. They cannot be explained or justified by means of logic.

Much like in a still life, the extent to which the photo contains “truth” depends on, and only on, the viewer: the relationship to reality, that is, what the photo seems to represent according to its motif, is replaced by truth – a sort of aftertaste that remains with the viewer.

As such, the family stories subsequently invented by authors inspired by an invented family also form a very important part of the Family Constellation Project. Authors from many different countries have written stories based on each of the family constellations in order to complement the photos.

A book, which will be published at the end of the project, will contain around 200 “arranged” family photos with it's respective stories.


Alexander von Reiswitz photographs families. Families of all different sizes, families consisting of several generations or just a couple, families from different countries, with all the photos taken on the street. Everything in keeping with the genre then, with one exception: while the people in these photos could be just about anything, there is one thing they are not: a family. They didn’t even know each other before von Reiswitz picked them out on the street and arranged them into a “family” group.

Everything as normal and yet completely different. Someone once wrote the following about looking at von Reiswitz’s photos, “Much like a classical astronomer, who points his telescope at the sky to look for ways to capture the world in all its infinite constellations and is astonished by the view, von Reiswitz points his lens at families, which he himself has just invented and arranged.”

Von Reiswitz improvises a form of reality which is ultimately a lie. But anyone looking at the photos is still able to (re)create the truth which the lie conceals, a truth which emerges at the moment when you realise that these are not real families. Alexander von Reiswitz describes this process in the following way, “I’m sure of myself when I say that the truth is the feeling that lingers on like an aftertaste after you’ve seen one of the photos. The reality in question is what the photo purports to be, based on the visual information it contains.”

Although the photographer has his own clear idea of the roles that the randomly selected passers-by are to be given, much like an arranger or director, he still allows those looking at his photos plenty of room to make their own interpretations. “This is because the aftertaste left by the photos is always the most important thing, the most enduring element, communicating as it does with the internal truth of a person. If this “aftertaste” doesn’t resonate with the photo and the ideas behind it, the brain flushes everything back out again anyway.” (Alexander von Reiswitz)

“This type of communication also takes place between the protagonists of the “families” themselves, even if it’s only for the few seconds while the photo is being taken. They identify with the roles they’re supposed to be playing, they want to be a “real” family, at least for a couple of seconds. They’re supposed to – and even want to – portray a form of privateness, perhaps even conveying a greater sense of security than they really feel around these people.” (Freddy Langer: New York, Tokyo, Heusenstamm. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung No. 296 from 20.12.2007)
Sometimes they really begin to communicate with each other, starting conversations, exchanging phone numbers, wanting to stay in contact with each other.

Alexander von Reiswitz sees his construction of reality in the tradition of the “hunting photographers”, who are not content with creating a straightforward reproduction of reality. Reiswitz instead creates his own reality and also gives those who look at his photos the opportunity to create their own reality.

“With my family project”, says AvR, describing his approach, “the underlying process which governs the project often ends up being turned on its head in the final result. And I like that. I’ve “invented” families hundreds of times, I pick people from off the street who just happened to be there at the same time, sometimes I even run after them like a beggar; I get them to stand in front of me as a family and then take photos. It is as if time slows down in a controlled manner, during which you are, like in a chess game, immersed in a completeness of experience, a drama but also a game, with real people. Due to the time delay and element of improvisation during the process of finding, putting together and taking the photos of these so-called “invented” families, the overriding theme of the family continues to be addressed on an abstract level.”

There is a difference between just sitting down and thinking about the family as a concept and actually standing out on the street and constructing an invented world much like an architectural model, examining the possibilities available while still trying to bring forward the entire photo project in order to examine the possibilities available and at the same time bring forward the actual photo project.”

A similar process takes takes place within those looking at the photos. They see the people in the photos and put them together to form their own conception of the family in question, rearranging them or giving them the roles which the photographer had intended for them. It’s like a form of mental cinema, although the associations extend beyond simply imagining the families represented in the pictures (or, more accurately, their being representative of a family). These associations approach the concept of family both in an abstract way and in a concrete way –i.e in relation to one’s own family. Or maybe in the same way in which von Reiswitz describes his own role in the process, as a time traveller, who has only heard of the idea of a family without ever having had one himself and who observes families in order to try to imagine what it once meant both to be a family and to have a family. “Reiswitz’s family portraits are therefore not without a certain air of melancholy. They are complete fabrication and yet some small flash of truth still sparkles within them.” (Langer).

It does not thus seem presumptuous to see von Reiswitz’s family portraits within the tradition of the great “Family of Man” exhibition, which “while emphasising the differences between the people of the world and the diversity of their ways of life and customs, also implies that this pluralism fuses together to form a union of essential similarity: birth, death, work, knowledge, play all demand the same behaviour everywhere.
There is a family of humans.”(Gabriele Röttger-Denker: Roland Barthes zur Einführung. (An introduction to Roland Barthes) Hamburg: Junius Verlag, 1997. P. 16)

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