on Asia-Pacific Forum for Library and Achives Management
Bangalore, India, UTC- June 1-30, 2004
Week 3: Conservation and Management of Photography
Hon. Lecturer in Non-Western History
University of Basel
In the course of the last 20 years historical photographs
have been re-discovered in the West as a resource
for teaching at all levels, and for research of many
Before this photographs had been largely abandoned
when they got old, were forgotten and typically lay
in remote cupboards in serious disorder.
So we archivists are playing a key role in upgrading
this newly-discovered resource and making it available
for many kinds of users. But we need to understand
what this rediscovery means, so that our administration
of photographic holdings contributes to the innovations
which are happening, rather than holding them up.
In the West photographs were mostly used, in the past,
merely as UP-TO-DATE ILLUSTRATIONS OF TRUTHS EXPRESSED
didn’t challenge texts, they confirmed them.
most people wanted to use the most up-to-date photographs.They
wanted to use the technically most perfect images.
They wanted to show things as near to the present-day
as they could. (This especially applied to missionary
societies in Europe and North America, concerned with
urgent needs now, now, now! Old out-or-date photographs
fell into limbo.)
Nowadays photographs PLAY A STRONGER, MORE LEADING
ROLE in teaching, research and the media. Here are
some attempts to define this new situation –
which is most correct, I wonder?
there is a new “partnership” between words
and photographs in which photographs raise questions,
make suggestions, help to create quite new analyses
of the past.
photographs can have an independent message no longer
dependent on the words (documentation) which accompany
there is a new “dialogue” between words
and photographs in which the words may send us to
look at the photographs for clarification, and the
photographs may send us to look at the words with
questions which they inspire. So photographs may make
us look at verbal texts with fresh eyes. They may
make us conscious of gaps in the information offered
by verbal texts which we had not noticed before.
Translating this development into a broad view of
research on history:
lot of people are doing research nowadays on the History
of Photography: the activity of taking and producing
and using/selling photographs has come to be seen
as a major theme in its own right in modern history.
historians are also looking at Photographs as sources
for research in many different topics. Anyone nowadays
working on any theme in social history since 1839
has to pay careful attention to the question whether
historical photographs (“Visual sources”)
may exist relevant to his or her work – and
he or she must be aware that photographs can transform
his or her “view” of the past.
The situation today is not quite simple, however.
If historians and social scientists have new ways
of reading old photographs, modern journalism goes
on looking for photographs which dramatically illustrate
what the news texts say – it looks for “slap
in the face” photos, photographs which are totally
unambiguous in their impact on the spectator.
Historians and social scientists may even, as a result,
want to think of “schools for seeing”
in which careful and reflective “reading”
of old photographs helps people to be less gullible
in their own personal interpretations of photographs.
Then they can do their own reflective “reading”
of the contemporary images we constantly see in the
press and on TV and come to conclusions other than
those the picture editor intended.
We, of course, are resting on the “East-West
Divan” in this workshop ..... I started this
section (para 2) by writing about the rediscovery
of historical photographs “in the West”.
It is important for Asian archivists to understand
what this major intellectual happening is all about,
since it is part of the impact of globalisation that
new ideas in the West influence intellectuals all
over the world, and may turn up in quite remote theological
seminaries in Asia or Africa.
it is also important to recognise that people in different
cultures have different ways of looking at photographs
and interpreting them. They have different wishes
and desires when being photographed.
kind of photographs which will come together in an
Asian church archive will no doubt be influenced by
both sides – photography from the West, and
indigenous photography from the immediate environment.
And everyone has to think out for themselves, in his
or her specific situation, what that means in practice.