The abysmal state of South Africa’s photo archives

Together in song: There was a band called Fire Brigade owned by Cynthia Mavuso’s father that used to rehearse at his home. On this particular day in the 1990s, they had held a beauty contest called Miss Fire Brigade. (Cynthia Mavuso)

The abysmal state of South Africa’s photo archives

Mail & Guardian – 1 Oct 2021

Cedric Nunn

The need for digitisation became apparent at the very beginning of the digital era. In about 1996, I invested in an Apple Mac with a digital scanner. In the early days, digital cameras were expensive and they were upscaling fast, but they started off quite primitively. I made a decision to start digitising my negative archive. The technology around the scanning of negatives hasn’t changed much since back then.

From going through the process, I realised I had this large archive that could be improved by digitising so I could access the negatives more freely and send them to publications. There was still a demand and people were paying market-related prices.

I digitised my best images, then the scanner became obsolete and I was unable to replace it. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, I stopped for 10 to 15 years.

Then the technology changed to where you didn’t need a scanner, but you could digitise through a camera with the right equipment attached.

I have a vast archive of about 100 000 negatives, with about 30 000 to 40 000 of those worth digitising. Over this period, from the early 2000s until now, I have felt a lot of pressure to scan that work … 

The negative is like an artefact, but it’s very difficult to attach metadata to it. With people my age, you start to become aware of your mortality and that that information is in your head. So if you die, that information goes with you, leaving behind a compromised archive. 

I have made various attempts to get scanning efforts off the ground. Over the years, computers have made cameras ubiquitous. As independent photographers, our income has declined. We are, effectively, unemployed. 

It makes it difficult to obtain the necessary equipment to archive. Everybody is talking about it, but nobody is walking the talk. It has taken a long time to find the right partners to invest in the equipment. I’m part of a digitisation group and it’s like I’m hogging the equipment — it needs to travel around.

We provisionally named it the African Documentary Photography Archive initiative. I know that there are photographers in Mozambique and Zimbabwe that need to desperately archive their work.

We were fortunate to meet a sympathetic organisation, Art for Humanity. It’s a project of the Durban University of Technology, but is a separate NGO. It is tasked with incubating art-related organisations and its staff saw the value in our organisation, so they are assisting us in setting it up.

The aim is not just to preserve information, but for the images to be accessible to art critics, curators, researchers; to drive publications, exhibitions and media, like posters; and produce fine prints for exhibitions, et cetera. This is so that the artists’ estates can benefit from these images, so that they are income streams and can be seen by a wider critical public. 

Paul Weinberg

At the turn of the 21st century, when everything moved convincingly to digital, I had to start scanning my own work as well. Picture libraries were accepting only digital work at that point. Even if you shot in film, you’d still have to digitise material. 

It took a few years to digitise my own work. I’ve got about 10 000 scans in my own archive that’s available through Africa Media Online. It has been an incredible resource to many photographers in South Africa. They look after our work and sell it editorially. 

In 2008, I was employed at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and became a curator in their archives. I was involved in a number of digitisation projects. This included some famous anthologies, like Beyond the Barricades and The Cordoned Heart

When I was at UCT Libraries, we went into an ambitious mode of digitising as many private photo collections as we could. That happened until I left in 2018. 

I have been involved with the Photography Legacy Project since then and have been working with a number of archives and photographers around South Africa: this includes Ernest Cole’s archive, Peter Magubane, Alf Kumalo and Ruth Motau among others and also outside South Africa, with archives in Kenya, Sudan and Lesotho.

There are very few resources to do this work in South Africa. In most “first world” countries there is support from the state. You have photo museums and institutions that bring in collections, look after them, conserve them and then present them digitally. In South Africa, we are like in the wild South. There is so much to do digitally and very little has been directed our way to support legacies that should be exposed and should be accessible to the country, the continent and the world.

To be an archivist is to be an activist in this country. We work against the grain and we work against national amnesia and cultural neglect. The state has been appalling in supporting photographers who have made such a contribution to the memory and social history of this country. 

The other related issue, particularly around vernacular photography, is that people from outside come and buy the collections and we lose them on a regular basis to the first world and wealthier countries, which buy up our heritage. Very little is done to preserve what we understand as vernacular photography.

One hopes that at some point there is a sea change and real support to digitise many collections and photographers. But we have been naive to not see it coming. We have lobbied and gone to workshops to raise these issues, but it has all fallen on deaf ears. 

There was a white paper on digitisation, and that was going to be a way forward and that has just disappeared. We’ve been left to our own resources. The institutions that have supported digitisation are European. It’s an abysmal situation. 

We talk about decolonisation as a way of deconstructing the past and finding a way to the future. 

At the heart of decolonisation is digitisation of material and resources, so they don’t have to walk through steel doors to enter universities and museums. By not digitising we are failing the decolonisation moment that is so critical.

Premesh Lalu

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) recently entered into a partnership with photographer Rashid Lombard to house his substantial archival collection, which promises to offer expanded perspectives on the  everyday cultural and political life of the Cape Flats. 

Consisting of a vast photographic record of Cape Flats history, from  the 1960s onwards, as well as an equally vast documentation of the history of jazz in South Africa, the  Rashid Lombard Collection  brings  into view a hitherto repressed and often neglected feature of life under apartheid.

There is much to be said about the  confidence expressed by Lombard in his decision to deposit his collection at UWC. The institution has set in motion the first stages of a project on archival renewal through the establishment of a state-of-the-art archive facility to deepen and  enhance its student and faculty research initiatives. Beyond the fact that the Lombard collection provides us with an opportunity to delve into a significant part of the institution’s courageous fight against apartheid in higher education, it also opens up new areas of research. 

This has the potential, for  instance, to advance the ongoing  collaborations with students and faculty, convened by Professor Patricia Hayes, the chair in visual history and theory in the Centre for Humanities Research, as well as other research initiatives across the university, not to mention the much wider public interest generated by this collection.

The Rashid Lombard Collection  may help to expand the standard national narrative of the struggle against apartheid by drawing attention to the cultural politics and everyday life that enabled millions of people to negotiate the landscapes of racial segregation in a divided city. 

It is an archive that provides insight through carefully crafted and curated materials related to the sensory experiences of apartheid that are often neglected and overlooked in research inquiries across a range of fields of study in South African higher education institutions. 

To the extent that it places us in a proximate relation to the evocative histories of photography and jazz on the Cape Flats, we may begin to hear the strains of freedom buried in the  images formed out of the past in an archival collection of national and international significance that comprises about 500 000 photographs, 120 cinematic works, audio recordings, literary works and ephemera.

The Lombard collection represents an act of renewal, both at the levels of the archival commitments of UWC and in the efforts to relink sense and perception in the divided city. 

Much excitement is beginning to form around the arrival of the collection at the university, with the prospect of new research projects that will be initiated through the Centre for Humanities Research, the faculty of arts and humanities,  and more broadly across the university. 

The collection — to be housed at the university’s new archive facility, which will also hold the Robben Island Museum-UWC Mayibuye Archive, among others — stands as a valuable resource in rethinking the past and imagining a future that not only serves UWC’s public commitments, but also revitalises its research projects across a broad  spectrum of inquiries, from land and agrarian studies, to public health, to food security, to community law.  

The Rashid Lombard Collection  has the potential to catalyse new  questions and attitudes  about the  making of a post-apartheid future  across these research platforms. This article was originally published in UWC’s research magazine, Signals 

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