Awardee: Tieshka K Smith

Primary Artistic Medium: Visual Arts, 2 Dimensional


To the uninitiated, Black family reunions may appear to be elaborately planned, relaxed and joyful multi-generational gatherings of family members adorned in matching t-shirts. Perhaps you’ve seen them in places like parks, restaurants, banquet halls, hotels or resorts, laughing, relaxing, dancing, eating, playing card games and reminiscing.

However, blogger Kiana Keys challenges us to go deeper: She writes that black family reunions are “the nurturing, bonding and intentional preservation” of Black American culture, birthed out of the painful and traumatic institution of American slavery that literally sought to undermine, if not obliterate, Black familial and community bonds. Organizers were entrusted with an important set of responsibilities, and one of the most critical ones was deciding on a location, to ensure the safety and comfort of family members.

The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the rise in nationwide (peaceful) protests against racial injustice (and sometimes violent clashes with law enforcement), has dramatically altered our collective relationship to, engagement with, and critiques of, public spaces. Black family reunions are not exempt, and neither are the ways in which these gatherings have been traditionally documented. This is our new normal, and nothing feels quite as safe and sure anymore.

Out of heightened health and safety concerns, black family reunions are now pivoting to a mix of social/physical distancing, mask wearing, video conferencing and live streaming. In-person contact has not only been discouraged but in some cases, weaponized against Black folks. It has become a real challenge to maintain the integrity of a cultural tradition that emphasizes family reconnections, bonding and nurturing against the backdrop of a public space that was, in times past, seen as relatively safe and comfortable.

Because the extent of this shift is unclear, it offers an opportunity for me as a documentary photographer to investigate the ways in which Black Philadelphians are reimagining their family reunions in light of COVID-19. To what degree are Blacks pivoting away from staging these events in traditional public spaces in favor of more virtual spaces? What are the primary concerns of organizers at this juncture? From a community perspective, what is lost and what is gained when a portion of (or all of) these events are held virtually? How can our institutions be more supportive of families in their efforts to maintain this important and vital cultural tradition in this new context?

I will create a photo essay centering the voices and perspectives of community members who have a track record/reputation for organizing Black family reunion events in Philadelphia and who can compellingly recount the ways in which they’ve had to adjust. Photo sessions may be staged in a variety of virtual/physical spaces and contexts, and where appropriate and necessary, social/physical distancing, mask wearing, etc., will be practiced to ensure the safety of all involved. The goal would be to exhibit the work and host a community-wide conversation in partnership with the AIA Philadelphia, Family Reunion Institute, Parks and Recreation and other related groups/organizations.