Jennifer Bajorek: How to keep 20th-century visual histories alive?
Jennifer Bajorek: How to keep 20th-century visual histories alive?
by Marian Nur Goni & Érika Nimis, July 2014
An international workshop focusing on the preservation of African photography collections (3PA: West African Image Lab) took place 22-25 April 2014, in Porto-Novo, Benin. The workshop was initiated by “Resolution,” an organization founded by researchers Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney.
Jennifer Bajorek details the substance, stakes, and future projects of this unprecedented workshop, against the backdrop of an increasingly urgent problem: protecting a historic and threatened heritage.
Can you please introduce your organization – “Resolution” -, its scope and agenda?
Resolution is a non-profit organization dedicated to photography and photography collections in Africa. We create and support preservation initiatives, and we collaborate with African partners to design innovative public programming focused on African photography and photography collections. Our aim is to keep these vibrant and vitally important photography collections alive for future generations, and to dramatically expand public and community access to them in the present.
In April, Resolution (which is Erin Haney and myself: we founded and direct the organization together) ran the 3PA (Préservation du Patrimoine Photographique Africain): West African Image Lab, a workshop on photographic preservation, in Porto-Novo, Benin. 3PA brought together conservation professionals with arts activists, researchers, and institutions and individuals responsible for significant photography collections in Africa to provide technical training in photographic preservation. The focus of the event – like the focus of Resolution as an organization – was on providing on-the-ground solutions in photography collections in Africa. The event also sought to open a dialogue on the future of African collections. Partners and participants came from 10 countries, 8 of them in sub-Saharan Africa. It was an extraordinary international effort.
What were your criteria to select participants? Can you please also briefly introduce them, as well the collections they represented?
3PA was the first event of its kind, and the first ever to address at-risk collections in Africa, so we wanted to keep the selection criteria very broad. We wanted to ensure that the workshop was open to participants from a range of collections, consisting of diverse materials, and working in different types of institutions and contexts.
Participants came from national archives and museums: the National Archives of Burkina Faso, the National Archives of Benin, the National Museum of Mali, the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, the CBRST (Centre Béninois de Recherche Scientifique et Technique), and the CRDS (Centre de Recherches et de Documentation du Sénégal). The CRDS, in Senegal, was also a key partner. In addition, there were participants from independent contemporary art institutions, and their voices were very important: for example, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (Nigeria), and the Fondation Zinsou in Cotonou (Benin). Participants also came from several private collections or archives, including, importantly, studio archives that have been inherited or entrusted to the younger generation — a father’s or an uncle’s collection. In the case of one, particularly fascinating collection, that of photographer Paul Kodjo, from Abidjan, he has entrusted his entire negative archive to another photographer (Ananias Léki Dago). Also among the collections represented at the workshop was that of photographer Mory Bamba, now entrusted to his son, Adama Bamba, who came from Bamako to attend.
These private collections are unique, and they contain images and histories that are not found in institutional collections. They are also, often, the most at-risk. There were 20 participants in total, and so I am not able to address the extraordinary richness of each of these collections here.
One criterion that we DID have, which we tried very hard to enforce, was that participants had to come from within west Africa. There were a few exceptions, and we invited a handful of participants from outside the region, with an eye to future workshops. But we received dozens of applications from outside the region, which we could not accept. This regional emphasis was important, for conceptual and practical reasons – including, of course, for budgetary reasons. The cost of travel between eastern and southern Africa and west Africa can be truly exorbitant.
Can you please give insights about how concretely the workshop worked during its length?
The conservation professionals brought with them a core curriculum that they teach, focused on technical aspects of photographic preservation. We then worked with the conservators to adapt that curriculum to meet the needs of our participants, who are looking after archives and collections in Africa. The conservation professionals and primary instructors were Nora Kennedy, of Photograph Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Debra Hess Norris, of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware, also in the US, and Bertrand Lavédrine, of the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections (CRCC-CNRS), in France.
There were units on the history and chemistry of the photographic process, the identification of silver prints and negatives, and risks contributing to their deterioration; units on handling photographic materials and on storage issues, including, importantly, how to source materials locally, even how to make them; units on collection management, rescue, and emergency planning. The technical curriculum was taught in a very accessible and open style. It was driven by participants’ questions and needs, and incorporated many hands-on demonstrations. The participants also gave a 10-minute presentation introducing us to their collections and outlining their most immediate preservation challenges.
In addition, Erin and I developed a short curriculum that touched on public programming and educational initiatives, exhibitions and alternatives, publications, and digitization protocols. We were joined by Henrike Grohs of the Goethe-Institut in Abidjan, Fatima Fall of the CRDS in Saint-Louis, and Franck Ogou of l’École du Patrimoine Africain in Porto-Novo, who all discussed public programs, exhibitions, and other curatorial projects at their respective institutions in Africa. This part of the workshop was extremely important to us: there is no point in preserving a collection if it is not going to be made accessible to the public, and if we are not moving it into the future.
We tried to mix these activities — lectures and hands-on demonstrations, talks about chemistry and about curation — to keep the rhythm of the program changing, and the energy moving, throughout the four days.
What have been the main challenges you met to set up this important workshop?
The energy, expertise, and commitment of all of our participants and instructors have just been extraordinary. We had such an amazing team that, honestly, working together, there were no practical challenges that we were not able to solve. The extraordinary commitment of l’École du Patrimoine Africain in Benin, our key local partner, was crucial to our success. Working across languages (the workshop was fully bilingual English and French) was a real challenge, but it was one that l’EPA was ready to tackle, and the bilingual conversation was essential.
The real challenges have been mainly financial. Our local partners are at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to fundraising, and this is the one challenge they cannot solve. On the one hand, we were successful in raising the funds we needed, thanks to the vision and generosity of our many partners and donors. But demand really exceeded what we were able to meet, with our very modest budget, and, unfortunately, the workshop did not garner the interest or support of any of the big philanthropic foundations. This was particularly disappointing in the case of foundations that focus on cultural heritage preservation or on culture and development. Many of the foundations that fund conservation and preservation in the arena of art and culture don’t seem to see photography as important, or they are not aware of the particular challenges that 20th-century collections are facing now. Others that recognize the value and the interest of photography don’t seem to want to fund this type of initiative in Africa, where the benefits of investment are truly extraordinary, in areas such as capacity building and technical training, and building public-private partnerships (for example, in Africa’s growing tech sector). The benefits, in other words, are not limited to the arena of cultural heritage preservation.
We are hopeful that the momentum will continue to build, and that we will continue to grow our network of partners. We are confident that a growing public and therefore, more and more stakeholders, are coming to appreciate the importance of photography in Africa and in contemporary society. 3PA was a regional workshop, but the problems we are tackling are universal. How to keep 20th-century visual histories alive? How to tap their energy for the future? Every country, practically every city, in the world has a history written in old photographs. How to preserve them? How to make them accessible to as broad a public as possible?
One of the workshop’s aims was “to assess needs in photography collections throughout the West African region”. From theory to the groundwork, what are today your assessments regarding this huge critical issue?
The situation, as you know, is dire. There is a serious lack of preservation resources, including but not limited to technical training, in many countries in Africa. The availability of such resources is, in Europe or in North America, usually linked to the presence and power of large institutions – archives, museums, public or private – that are looking after collections that are considered to be a so-called “national treasure,” or part of a common cultural heritage. Such institutions are few and far between in most countries in Africa. Where they do exist, preservation has generally not been made a priority, and their collections are at risk.
As I have already said, however, the majority of significant 20th-century collections are not in institutions but in private collections, in the hands of families and, often, with photographers’ heirs. The growing interest in “African photography” globally has made these collections particularly vulnerable to theft and resale, and prints and negatives from African studios can be found for sale on the international art market almost everywhere today. Aging photographers or their heirs, with few other sources of income and without access to legal advice, are under pressure to sell their collections at prices that are much too low. Some countries and cities have been more affected than others by this pressure. Franck Ogou, a curator and researcher at l’EPA, specializing in the photographic heritage of Benin, told us recently that if immediate measures are not taken to staunch sales of that country’s photographic heritage, within 3-5 years, there will be “nothing left.” He means no more black and white vintage prints and negatives, dating from the pre-digital era, in his country.
The consequences of this wholesale exporting of African photographic heritage for local communities, whose histories are written in these images, are profound. This is why it is so important to support preservation locally, to do the actual conservation work on collections in situ, and to set up the necessary structures to preserve these collections and ensure that they will remain accessible to African publics.
In your view, what kind of adjustments should possibly be made for your program’s next steps?
3PA was a pilot workshop, so there was never a plan to repeat it or to extend it in the form it took in April. Rather, we wanted to gather ideas about what would be most useful, and to have the participants take the lead in deciding what should happen next. As might be expected, there were different priorities, and groups with specific interests, that emerged.
Some of the participants have expressed an interest in going much deeper into the technical training – some, for example, are talking about doing PhDs in conservation, or in sending members of their staff abroad to do the PhD. Thanks to the workshop, we were able to forge the relationships and start building the networks that will make this very important, and very ambitious step, possible for some of the participants, who want a much broader and much deeper training, and who see that level of technical training as essential to the future of their collections and their institutions.
Other participants are seeking a very specific, and relatively narrow, type of technical knowledge, to address conservation issues arising in a collection consisting of materials on one particular type of support, dating from a single time period. Some want only to stabilize and to digitize thousands negatives dating from a single decade—black and white 6×6 cm cut negatives from the 1950s—for example. These people don’t need to learn more about prints, or about color film, for example, when there are no prints and no color in their collections.
Most likely, we will want to work with these people, with different interests and concerns, in different groups. So we are thinking about smaller workshops, tailored to the more specific needs of different groups, or we might organize a workshop for each of several different groups that meet separately and then come together in a larger group to address common themes. Again, at 3PA in Porto-Novo, in April, we wanted to ensure that many different types of collections, and many different concerns, were represented. The conversation and topics covered were, by design, very broad. For future events, the focus will be narrowed.
Did the program trigger collaborations, particular ideas, new projects among participants and their collections?
Yes, absolutely! And we are thrilled. Through the workshop, several participants representing several family collections from Benin, mainly from Porto-Novo, were introduced to Sonia Mahame, who is in charge of photographs at the National Archives of Benin. At lunch one day, Sonia invited them to bring their collections into the photothèque in the National Archives, so that they can work on them together. They are developing a plan of action and still deciding on the scope of the collaboration: likely to inventory and to assess the state of the materials, collaborate on their restoration, make reproductions, collaborate on identifications, and potentially deposit copies with the National Archives. This is an enormous and very exciting step. None of these people had ever met before the workshop, so we were thrilled.
In a very different project, a group of our Nigerian participants is exploring cooling technologies, specifically, solar generators for temperature and humidity control. They are discussing working on this back in Nigeria, where the potential for public-private partnerships is very strong, and where investors are already interested in building this kind of tech-focused small business on a local scale. Solar is a growing industry in Africa, and there are some very big players in the solar industry, for example, in Benin, so our hope is that our Nigerian and our Beninese participants will be able to work together, and to find a partner in solar industry that can help them to develop cooling technologies directly in their collections, and tailored to their needs. This is very exciting. Solar cooling and refrigeration could be a great alternative to having to rely on air-conditioners, which are imported, and which won’t run half the time anyway because of the chronic electricity problems.
Others are collaborating on projects that may take a more familiar form, but that are no less exciting to us. There is a good chance that a book—possibly more than one book—will come out of collaborations forged at the 3PA workshop in April. We, as Resolution, are discussing a book based on one of the collections at the workshop in Benin. It is too soon to give any details.
Perhaps most exciting, our local partner in Benin, l’EPA, just announced that a new fund has been inaugurated that will be dedicated exclusively to photographic preservation in Africa. The plan is to create a permanent photo research center that would host regular training in preservation and preventive conservation, and that could even house local collections that could be used for teaching and for conservation research. The idea for the center is still in the proposal stage, and nothing has been decided, but the fact that photographic preservation has been identified as a top priority for a major local institution dedicated to cultural heritage preservation in Africa – this is just amazing, beyond our wildest dreams, and we will of course support this initiative in every way we can.
After this first experience, what’s next?
Our priorities, coming out of the 3PA pilot, are (a) to look more closely at the specific interests of the smaller, more focused groups, united by common concerns, that emerged in our conversations in Porto-Novo, and (b) to support, where possible, the projects initiated by the participants. We are collaborating on the book. With the conservation professionals, we are discussing a future workshop providing preservation training in another region – likely, southern Africa. In west Africa, we will continue to build our relationship with l’EPA. Specifically, we will support their vision for their photo preservation fund, and participate in the design of their photo research center. In all of these projects, we will continue to approach the foundations in hopes of securing their support for this vitally important work that our participants and partners are doing, in increasingly creative and exciting collaborations. We will also continue to explore alternative sources of funding, such as through private-sector partnerships, maybe through licensing of image content, almost certainly through crowd-funding.