Endangered Archives

Small amounts of public funding can make an enormous difference to a photographer. But there are some objectives like, for example, ‘safeguarding the documentary heritage of humankind’ that require more substantial backing. The Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library received $18.2 million from a charity called Arcadia to work towards this ambitious goal and, since 2004, have been spending this money to preserve and digitize all manner of precariously situated collections around the world.

It is remarkable that such an enlightened project exists, and nearly as surprising that it has received so little notice. The British Library (motto: ‘the world's knowledge’) is the perfect place for such a project having in-house expertise in many different cultures and languages as well as experience in archiving and digitizing documents of all kinds (Arcadia also fund the excellent National Sound Archive).

I went to speak to Lynda Barraclough, the curator of the programme, and she explained how individual projects are selected and administered. Of the 15 projects funded so far that are exclusively photographic she mentioned, among others, photographs from the Georgian State Archive, a photographic archive of Siberian indigenous peoples and a Cameroonian photographic studio.

The last of these sounded particularly interesting so I arranged to meet up with David Zeitlyn the social anthropologist who had organised it. David has been working in one village in Cameroon for more than 25 years. He says he stumbled into photography by chance when he tracked down the two photographers who made the village's identity photographs, Samuel Finlak and Joseph Chila. David subsequently organised an exhibition of  their work at the National Portrait Gallery in London based on what remained of their archives. Only later did he meet the photographer that had taught them, Jacques Touselle. ‘Photo Jacques’ had retained much more of his work and this prompted an application to the Endangered Archives Programme.David explains the process he went through to make digital copies of Photo Jacques' archive. This included great efforts to try and identify the people in the pictures which have been largely fruitless because surnames are not widely used in the area. He also puts the archive in a historical perspective, even in rural Cameroon the spread of digital photography has put professional photographers out of business. The studio collection is a lucky survivor of a once-common form of photography in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa.


As you will hear in the interview, while I was talking to Lynda Barraclough we were interrupted. A PR woman from the Library had turned up unannounced and sat in on the interview. When my questions turned to whether there were ethical issues about the Library's work in Africa she effectively brought the interview to a halt. Lynda Barraclough is a thoughtful, well informed and articulate speaker. I find it hard to understand why the Library would employ someone who knows nothing about the subject to police what she has to say.

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