Vintage Black Canada: Reframing a cultural narrative

Aaron Francis (MA ’14) uses family photos to challenge stereotypes of the Black experience in Canada

aaron francis portraitFor Aaron Francis (MA ’14, PhD in progress), each picture captured by his late grandfather – photographer and aerospace engineer Roy Francis – is worth more than a thousand words.

When his grandfather passed in January 2019, Francis came across his collection of photos that spanned 100 years. There were portraits, celebrations and the daily happenings of the Black experience across Jamaica, England and Canada, specifically Waterloo region, where his grandfather had settled in the 1960s.

The discovery inspired Francis to embark on a creative project, Vintage Black Canada, which shares the photos not only to honour his family legacy but also to present a counter-narrative to the themes of absence, poverty and despair that are so common when Black families are represented in the media.

“Having these photos made me want to share positive stories, contrary to the broken, Black home narrative,” Francis says. “I’m trying to bring an alternative light to a common stereotype, though I still do have some conversations with folx* which reinforce the narrative.”

Having these photos made me want to share positive stories, contrary to the broken, Black home narrative.

Now, three years after Francis launched Vintage Black Canada, the project has taken off with an exhibit at the BAND Gallery in Toronto and images reaching people across the world through social media.

“My grandfather was one of the go-to Black photographers in the Kitchener-Waterloo area,” Francis says. “I remember him documenting everything he could with different cameras and taking photos of us with a medium-format camera.”

Roy Francis’s duties as a husband, father, grandfather, aerospace engineer and photographer represent the resilience woven through the family’s story across generations.

“Growing up, we were all used to wearing multiple hats. That’s just a part of the Black experience,” Francis says. This multiplicity is evident in the Vintage Black Canada collection, with positive images of everything from weddings and concerts to fashion.

In moving beyond resiliency to growth, sustainability and prosperity as a culture, Francis is taking things one day at a time. “I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that the growing pains from the last year are indicative of a coming change – one we’ve seen happening slowly,” Francis says. “In a sense, Vintage Black Canada is a storyboard.”

Francis hopes to begin a writing project one day that details experiences in Waterloo Region told from a Black perspective.

And although he takes things one day at a time, one thing is certain: he’ll have the photos to document the process and progress along the way. 

*Editor's note: The terms folks and folx are both gender neutral ways to refer to groups of individuals, but the term folx is purposefully inclusive of trans and non-binary individuals.

Banner Photo credits: instagram: @vintageblackcanada

Portrait of Aaron Francis Photo Credit: Ryan Antooa