A family album can offer us a way of entering into dialogue with our personal history. Through piecing together the fragments of our past, we can come to understand our present. But what if the photographs don’t exist? Alba Zari’s project The Y takes the absence of her father as its starting point. Using photography as a tool of investigation, she analyzed her family archive for clues that pointed to who he might be, employing various image technologies to create a visualization of the man she never knew.

It was at the age of 25 that Zari discovered she had a different biological father to her Thai brother. Only a few details of this mysterious figure existed: he met Zari’s mother in Bangkok in 1986, he probably worked for Emirates Airlines, he was most likely Iranian, and his name was Massad. From that day on, Zari felt her own identity transform, and an urgent need to reconnect the missing links and find her father took over. “I used the medium and language I knew the best to try to find him: photography,” she says. “Like a forensic investigator, I methodically started to look for traces of Massad.”

By comparing her own facial features to family members from previous generations, Zari compiles visual lists of unidentifiable characteristics as clues about her biological father’s own appearance. From the series “The Y” © Alba Zari

From the start of the project to its end, Zari’s photographic quest has grown from the gaps in the information she does have. The project began in the family archive, looking for clues in pictures of her childhood in Thailand. “I had to rethink my past,” she explains. “So I painted an unknown silhouette onto all the pictures where my putative father is, imagining Massad into the family pictures.” The next step was a DNA test to trace her ancestral origins. Women inherit only two X chromosomes, so her paternal genetic information couldn’t be read. In face of the missing ‘Y’ of her father, her search quickly evolved into a hunt for “objective truth,” which would lead her into scientific territory and across several different photographic languages.

By using various imaging softwares, Zari makes composites of all the features she assumes were inherited from her biological father. From the series “The Y” © Alba Zari

For Zari, images were both the source of investigation and the outcome. “I used photography, especially in the physiognomic part of the investigation, as an analytical language. As Cesare Lombroso used the camera to study features of his patients, I started to compare my features to my maternal line ones, and through a process of elimination, I would find the features of the father I never met,” Zari explains. “I arrived to the conclusion that my eyes, nose, mouth, skin tone should look like Massad.” Turning the camera on herself, as well as her brother and her legal father, Zari was then able to construct a 3D avatar of what he could look like based on her investigations using ‘MakeHuman’ and ‘Blender’ 3D software.

After determining which of her own features are unidentifiable, Zari uses imaging software to create a hypothetical composite of what her biological father might look like. From the series “The Y” © Alba Zari

While this ‘image’ serves a practical function – Zari will run it through facial recognition technology to search for her father on social networks – it’s true importance is a personal one. “After all of the research, I was not able to find any other information. My strongest desire was to find an image of him where I could reflect myself,” she says. “I created his image for peace of mind, and to prove his existence.” Using scientific methods helped Zari work her way through this deeply emotional journey, with every discovery and failure acting as a step closer to her missing father. “Even if I used a scientific approach, his identity is still mystery. There is this quote by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska that I really love: ‘Such certainty is beautiful, but uncertainty is more beautiful still.’”