African Photography Initiatives: “Sensing the Archive’s Flesh and Bone…”
INTERVIEW WITH JÜRG SCHNEIDER AND ROSARIO MAZUELA
By Marian Nur Goni, June 2014
African Photography Initiatives is a Swiss not-for-profit organization, founded in 2007 by Jürg Schneider and Rosario Mazuela, which aims at enhancing awareness, preserving and documenting African historical photographic collections. Particularly active in the field of press photography which they consider rich in several respects and nevertheless neglected – obscured by the wave of interest aroused by studio and contemporary African photography – they detail here their current preservation project around the “Cameroon Press Photo Archives” in Buea, an institution established in 1955 by the British colonial administration.
Jürg, Rosario, can you please introduce your organization – African Photography Initiatives – retrace its history and evoke its main objectives?
We both come from quite different professional backgrounds. Rosario trained as a linguist and later worked in the advertising sector for many years and then in humanitarian aid and international cooperation projects, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. I studied history and political sciences and then continued working on historical photographs, organising exhibitions and publishing on the subject. At that time, it was in particular my research on the Carl Passavant photo collection at the Basel Ethnographic Museum which triggered my interest in African photography and African photographers.
When Rosario and I met in Burundi in 2007, where we both worked at that time, we soon
discovered our enthusiasm for photography, local photographic practises and traditions. We went all around Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, to visit and meet local photographers in their studios and those looking for clients down at Lake Tanganyika beach. We were also very lucky to meet Pierre Ndabihawenimana, the first photographer working for what later would become the Agence Burundaise de Presse (ABP). That was when we started to work in the Burundian Press Photo Archives. Supported by the French and German embassies and the Burundian government these activities in the archives and the terrain eventually led to an exhibition in the French cultural centre which was extremely well-frequented and, like the exhibition catalogue, well received by the local press.
Encouraged by the success of the exhibition and the catalogue we decided to create African Photography Initiatives, a Swiss non-profit organisation. Since then, African Photography Initiatives has continually been involved in various projects which in some way or other had the common goal to promote Africa’s rich photographic heritage. More specifically, African Photography Initiatives’ main objectives are (a) the protection of African photo archives as places of historical visual memories through conservation measures, digitization and storage, (b) the sensitisation of governments, academic institutions and the general public to the vulnerability and value of a nation’s visual heritage, (c) support and advise governments, institutions and individuals in their endeavors to make photographic material accessible to the public and (d) to develop and discuss ideas of how to cope with archival challenges, in extremis a digital void (1), posed by the fact that African photography, as elsewhere, has entered the digital age.
How did you encounter the Cameroon Press Photo Archives in Buea? As there are so many photographic archives neglected on the African continent nowadays, what moved you to work to preserve that one, in particular?
You will understand that from our experiences in Burundi we had become quite aware of the importance of press photography in Africa. On a continent where the majority of states, and I mean independent states, of course, are barely fifty years old and the process of creating and maintaining national identities still a very topical issue, this material bridging colonial and postcolonial times proves to be a unique source. We were fascinated by the visual wealth and breadth of press photography but also felt that press photography after the “discovery” of Seydou Keïta and Malik Sidibé in the early 1990s and the ensuing international interest focusing on African studio photographers was living shadowy and did not receive the attention it deserves.
Why the Cameroon Press Photo Archives in Buea? It is a combination of various factors and to a large degree the result of fortunate circumstances. I had spent one year in Buea in 1998/99 as a student and became aware of the Press Photo Archives but had not yet developed my strong interest in photography. When Rosario and I went back in 2011 to revisit the place and a couple of friends with whom I had been in contact ever since (Primus Forgwe, the chief archivist of the Buea National Archives, for instance) we had the chance of visiting the Archives and to meet Eno Chris Oben, the then regional delegate of the Ministry of Communication who was responsible for the Photo Press Archives. He understood the importance of the material, was very much aware of its fragility, agreed to support a digitization and preservation project on the spot and put us in contact with his hierarchy in Yaoundé. That’s how it began.
Asking why leads me to the next point: what is its nature, history and current situation?
You need to understand a bit of Cameroonian history. When Germany lost all its colonies after WWI, Cameroon was divided and subsequently administered as Mandate and later Trusteeship by Britain and France respectively. What is today the Anglophone part of Cameroon, where Buea is located, was administered as part of Nigeria until 1961 when Southern Cameroons, as it was called then, achieved independence by reuniting with French Cameroons forming the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The federal system was abandoned in the early 1970s and replaced by a unitary state.
Hence, it was the British colonial administration which opened the Information Service’s
Photographic Division in 1955 when Southern Cameroons was a quasi-federal territory within the Federation of Nigeria but already had its own Legislature and Executive Council. The photographers’ duty was to follow any governmental or otherwise socially relevant events throughout its territory (today’s Northwest and Southwest Regions). On the whole, the Photographic Division was well-staffed until the late 1980s but when Emmanuel Mbwaye, the Photographic Division’s first photographer and later Head of Services retired, he was not replaced and neither were any of the other photographers. As a result, the place was progressively left with less staff and practically abandoned in the early 2000s.
The negatives (black and white, 6×6 and 24×36, approximately 100 000) and groundsheets (booklets on whose pages are glued all the photos taken during one given event. Approx. 3500 equalling 14000 pages) date from 1955 to the late 1990s.-2000. The material is kept in an old and decaying two-storey building built by the Germans located in the historical centre of Buea adjacent to the National Archives and the Archives of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. There is no water and no electricity in the building. The climate being very humid and hot is a permanent threat for the negatives and groundsheets. Although the Archives are the responsibility of the Ministry of Communication there is nobody given a share of responsibility for the material nor is there a clear archival policy ruling its access and use.
Can you give insights of the different steps you went through to conserve and give access to this huge press archive? What are/have been the major challenges you had to face to in this long process?
We started in February 2013 with the digitization of all groundsheets and a part of the negatives (approx. 25000). This was followed by some conservation measures which means that we cleaned all groundsheets from dust, paper clips and staples and put them in new envelopes and boxes. Parallel to this we worked on the database. In order to carry out these works we created a team of 6 Cameroonian students. We had our workplaces in the adjacent premises of the Regional Delegation of the Ministry of Communication and were given unrestricted access to the building as well as to the Archives itself. Major challenges were the management of such a huge mass of documents with a team of initially rather inexperienced people. Imagine you have all at the same time two people digitizing groundsheets, one photographing negatives, two taking care of the database. You need to supervise people’s work, assign jobs, prepare the material and maintain an overview of the entire situation. Furthermore, there were computer crashes, people popping in spontaneously asking for information and material, heat, dust and humidity, and not least long working days in order to keep up with the whole process.
What threads of future research have emerged as most significant from the daily company of this archive?
While working with the material on a technical level you inevitably start wondering what kind of research one can do, what the photographs will provide with regard to people’s (not only academics’) various interests. On a very basic level, we have to bear in mind the specific nature of the material. It is a state archive and thus the photographs biased, although to a debatable degree. So we need to be clear about its limitations, purposes and scope. Also, the material, by its very nature, is quite repetitive. Nevertheless, you will find more than always the same rituals and protocols of a state. There is a wealth of material that tells you something about the material culture of the country, you can research gestures and mimics, in a nutshell, there is food for historians, anthropologists, gender studies, visual studies, etc. Furthermore, and I would like to emphasis this point, you can deal with the archive as a subject of research in itself asking, for instance, whether and if so to what extent the archive can be considered, in a Latourian sense, as an actor in a network of political, economic and social interests and strivings.
One of the project’s aims is also raising awareness about this precious visual heritage within local institutions and the Cameroonian public. Regarding this critical point, where are you at now? And what will happen to this physical (and digital) archive, once you and your team leave?
We always took every care to ensure that people in Cameroon but also in the academic community interested in African photography and archives were kept up to date about our project and the material we were dealing with. Media in Cameroon such as the Cameroon Tribune and HiTV, a local TV station, reported several times about the project (2). We were fortunate in that the project coincided with the 50th anniversary celebrations of Cameroons Reunification for which a number of the photographs we had digitized were used. We published a number of articles in journals such as Image & Mémoire (3), Rundbrief Fotografie (4) or in blogs such as Fotota. Furthermore, we have a website and are on Facebook where we regularly update visitors about the project’s progress. We organised a training course on photo archival techniques in Buea which was attended by students and lecturers from the University of Buea and Cameroonian archivists. The most recent initiatives were a seminar at the University of Basel about press photography in Africa in November last year and a research seminar in Buea last February in which students from Basel and Buea participated. Furthermore, we presented the project at the conference Anthropology and Photography in London this June which had been organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute and the British Museum conjointly.
Copies of the digitized negatives and groundsheets as well as the accompanying database will be handed over to the British Library – this is one of their requirements for funding – (5), the Ministry of Communication and the University of Buea. Since the aim of the Endangered Archives Programme is to enable online access to digital copies of vulnerable historical material for research purposes the digitized material will be made accessible on the British Library’s website. The future of the physical archive is a bit less clear and, pessimists might argue, bright. We are trying to negotiate the relocation of the material to the National Archives which is better protected and suited to house such material. We will also provide the Ministry with Archive Regulations which will facilitate defining the processes of access to, copying and reproducing the material. Evidently, a lot will depend on the Ministry’s willingness and determination to bring about the much needed revitalisation of the place.
You’re preparing a conference on photographic archives for January 2015. Can you briefly present it, as well as the “results” that you expect?
The conference “Validating Visual Heritage in Africa: Historical Photographs and the Role of the ‘Archive’” will, as you rightly say, take place in Buea in January 2015 and is organised in collaboration with the Universities of Buea and Basel, Switzerland. On the one hand, the conference will conclude the two-year project, which will render a substantial amount of the archive’s material more easily accessible. On the other hand, and on a very basic level, the event will provide a platform for scholars, interested but non-specialist citizens and artists to meet, exchange ideas and network. More specifically, the conference shall stimulate discussions about, and set out an agenda for, the space(s), value, role and future of photographic collections within the broader framework of the ‘Archive’. We hope very much to attract scholars from Cameroon and the rest of the continent. Expected results? We would be happy to see after the conference one or two research projects starting at Cameroonian universities or abroad using the material of the Buea Press Photo Archives. We would be more than satisfied if scholars stayed in touch with each other and continued the discussions they began in Buea.
The famous French historian Marc Bloch once wrote that a good historian is similar to the man-eater in the fairy tale; he finds his prey where he senses human flesh. In conclusion, we hope that after the conference more scholars of whatever academic discipline will sense the Archive’s flesh and bone, and devour it.
To end, parallel to Aphi, you run the Africaphotography website, which is also devoted to historical photographs produced within Africa. What are the project’s scope, breadth and means? And what agenda have you set up to expand it in the next future?
I founded the website some years ago together with Erin Haney, a historian based in the US with whom I have collaborated for many years on scholarship and various projects. In the meantime Rosario has joined the team and has in fact become the driving force behind the website’s further development.
The website is dedicated to all African photographers who since the 19th century have profoundly contributed to the visual creation of the continent, as well as to all who are interested in the history of African photography. We conceived it as a platform to all those institutions and individuals who wish to make public their collections of historical photographs from Africa. Today the website is presenting seven different collections ranging time wise from the 1870s to the 1970s, with regard to its geographical foci we are covering a great number of West and Central African countries including Burundi. The main challenge we are facing is not a lack of material to post but the lack of time and/or personal resources for proper editing the database. A good deal of the material, by its very nature, is badly documented when we receive it and it takes a lot of research work to contextualise it. However, we trust that those who use these undocumented photographs for their work will feedback their findings and we can add the information. In the future, we plan to include more contemporary photographers and hope to do the necessary catch-up work.
This interview was originally published in French in the Africultures’ website, in July 2014.
(1) Jürg Schneider and Rosario Mazuela wrote a piece on this issue: “From the paper archive to the digital void : Burundi – A country loses its visual heritage” (Africultures, 88, 2012, pp. 86-99).
(2) See for instance: “The Buea Archives Digitization Project”.
(3) Images & Memoires, Bulletin 40, Printemps 2014.
(4) Rundbrief Fotografie, vol. 20, 2013.
(5) The others fundings to the project came from the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel, and finally it is African Photography Initiatives itself contributing.
Un grand merci à Marie Lortie pour sa relecture en anglais !