I have been working as a professional photographer since 1999, a fact that means that I have now accumulated nearly 19 years of photographic images, both analog and digital. In reality, that amounts to a large wall of plastic boxes filled with negative sheet folders, print boxes and a history of dead hard drives and multiple DVDs of digital information. That is my archive. A mismatch of material that adheres to a variety of systems created to bring order to chaos. I am not a natural librarian, or an organized person, or even a detail-oriented person, but I am well-meaning and I do try my best. My archive is a reflection of this approach to my personal history. A confusion of stuff that only I can dissect.
Just as I began to write this piece, my eye was drawn to an announcement on Twitter that a UK-based academic Dr. Gill Pasternak had secured a grant for £500,000 to support a project that will explore the role of digital media in defining cultural heritage. Pasternak said of the project:
“At the moment we are living in a time when it is plainly visible how culture and cultural differences have become key political benefits as well as challenges in many countries. We will be looking into the way that majority and minority communities turn to digital heritage in order to claim and reshape spaces, histories and various social rights. Digital heritage is a medium that confronts the past and the present with each other, so our research will have both historical and contemporary value.”
I wish him luck and success in his research, but his statement and the size of the grant awarded made me reconsider my own personal mountain of digital heritage currently residing in my storage facility.
It also reminded me of the many conversations I have had over the last few years with photographers whose entire archive consists purely of analog material, too vast in quantity to digitally scan and too large in size and weight to easily and safely store for future generations. Those archives can all too easily be seen as a burden by future generations who inherit them, and are therefore too easily dismissed and destroyed on that basis. I have discussed the importance of these archives in a previous article.
Many photographers I speak with are hopeful that museums and collections will house their archives, but sadly these hopes are too rarely realized by cash-strapped institutions limited by funds and physical space. Even those that are lucky enough to be accepted can find themselves hidden forever in dusty basements forgotten by all except the most diligent researcher.
The future for our photographic history is therefore filled with hope, but few realistic options. However, it was Pasternak’s use of the term ‘digital heritage’ that made me think about where we are going as historians of our personal photographic heritage. Intrinsically, we as photographers are creators, not curators. We are absorbed by the creation of photographic images, but not by their storage and archiving. The prospect that our hard drives and shelves are at maximum capacity does not prevent us from creating more work. And yet our emotional, intellectual and aesthetic connection with that material creates within us a desire for it to remain after we do.
That is our heritage, whether it be digital or analog. However, both formats have their own issues that need to be addressed if we want future generations to see what we have seen and visually documented.
I have already mentioned my personal collection of dead hard drives, and many of us have traveled from Betamax, to floppy disc, to laser disc, to mini disc, to DVD. A journey of technological development and rejection as each new format promised a new dawn of quality and longevity, only to be replaced by yet another format and (more importantly) yet another player on which to view the material contained. Today, few of our studios will contain any piece of equipment capable of playing these formats, therefore making their content inaccessible and lost forever. As we are forced into a world of cloud storage, we may be moved away from the need to constantly update our retrieval equipment, but we are also being moved further away from the physical reality of our archives. In effect, we are placing our history into the hands of the unknown person and locality. Sure, we can retrieve these archives at present, but how future proof is that retrieval?
The photographic archives of the past are unwieldy, hard-to-store physical artifacts that evoke a sense of their time. Their feel, smell and material attributes speak to us not only of the photographic moment, but also the social economic state of the photographer who created them. Their digital equivalent retain none of these qualities, residing as digital documentation within vast storage servers housed within what we hope to be highly secure hangar-like buildings far from their creators. And yet, both our analog and digital heritage are essential documents of proof that show the realities of the life we are leading and have led. We are giving our history away, but will we be able to retrieve it?
I often speak of the importance of understanding the photographer’s role as a visual storyteller, but I would like to add to this an additional shared responsibility—that of the visual historian. It is not difficult to accept this responsibility as a documentarian of our times, but we must also understand the importance of accepting the responsibility of curator and archivists.
But how to do this? However good our intentions, it often seems that technology is against us in both the costs incurred, the time it demands and the continuing development of options available to us. I am sure that we are all doing our best to respond to all of these issues; I know I am! But I have no answers, no quick fix or recommended kit or workflow. What I do recognize is the importance of caring for my archive and ensuring that it exists in more than one place and in more than one format.
That is the best and the least that I can do to protect my past for the future. In the present, I need to consider my photography as important to both.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.
His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay will be screened across the UK and the US in 2018.
You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.
Text © Grant Scott 2018