Guide to historical photographs from Africa on the web

This guide gives an overview about selected web-projects making (historical) photographs from Africa available online in digital format.

Introduction

Kurt v. Schleinitz, 1907/1914, Tanzania, 004-1051-14

Kurt v. Schleinitz, 1907/1914, Tanzania, 004-1051-14

Image databases mainly result from large digitization projects making these important visual traces accessible not only for the African studies scholar but also for the people in Africa interested in their own history.

Often, these historical sources are not available in the country where the photograph has been taken in the past. So an unrestricted, worldwide access improves the local knowledge about the visual past and supports the preservation of the local cultural heritage. While the indexing of some of these projects was done from a very European point of view (prejudices and habit), local African people may add their interpretation and knowledge of persons, objects and places to the metadata attached to the pictures. Also they are encouraged to offer counter-interpretations and local productions of meaning.

An attempt to offer a Togolese interpretation of German colonial pictures is made by the research project of Dr. Koukou Azamede working on a critical interpretation and didactic presentation of historical photographs from the archive of the German Colonial Society (Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft).

Kolonialfotografie-ScreenshotRight now most of the image databases offer a somehow static presentation of pictures in sequence, deprived of their storage in the physical collection. Most of the projects tell not much about the contemporary use of the pictures. Open questions concern the flow of images across spaces, the re-use of pictures in other media (e.g. newspapers, books etc.) and the continuing (even unintended) effects. There is a growing literature on visual history and visual anthropology with some brilliant studies on individual photographs. However, right now, this did not have an impact on the design, interfaces, organization and contextual framing of image databases.

While interpreting photographs is a very demanding task, locating images on the web is only seemingly easy. Especially, it is difficult if one looks for photographs of very specific places, persons or material objects. One has to rely on verbal descriptions of the visual content. Often image databases use classifications or special thesauri to index the content. However, one has to look very closely on how theses thesauri do work, how the terms are spelled, not all do offer a search with synonyms, etc.

Another possibility to make the discovery of photographs from Africa easier would be the aggregation of scattered content in one digital place. An example might be the project “WikiAfrica” with over 30,000 African contributions to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia project thanks to the involvement of 100 institutions. It contains e.g. the image collections of the Brooklyn, the Tropenmuseum and the National Archives UK.

Some works to enter the academic discussion:
  • Heike Behrend: Contesting visibility. Photographic practices on the East African coast, Bielefeld: Transcript 2013.
  • Adam Jones (ed.): Through a glass, darkly: photographs of the Leipzig Mission from East Africa, 1896 – 1939, Leipzig: Univ.-Verl. 2013.
  • Richard Vokes (ed.): Photography in Africa: ethnographic perspectives, Oxford: Currey 2012.
  • Thomas Jack Thompson: Light on darkness? Missionary photography of Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans 2012.
  • Jens Jaeger: Colony as Heimat? The Formation of Colonial Identity in Germany around 1900, German History 27 (2009), 4, pp. 467-489.
  • Wolfram Hartmann (ed.): The colonising camera : photographs in the making of Namibia history, Cape Town: Univ. of Cape Town Press 1998.
  • (in German:) Christine Brocks: Ist Clio im Bilde? Neuere historische Forschungen zum Visuellen, in: Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 53 (2013), pp. 453-486.
  • more literature via ilissAfrica
Photographer E. Hecker in Ovamboland, A_0ii_6874

Photographer E. Hecker in Ovamboland, A_0ii_6874

Digital collections of individual libraries and archives

  • Colonial picture archive, Frankfurt University Library, includes the image collection of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft (DKG) documenting especially the German colonial activities. The database presents 53000 digitized historical pictures covering the whole of Africa and comprises the collection of photographs, photo albums and postcards owned by the Sam Cohen Library, Swakopmund, Namibia. While the general search interface is in German, the Africa-section can be retrieved in English via ilissAfrica.
  • Photographs of Africa, University of Florida Smathers Libraries, includes photographs of Africa from various research projects and photographers, e.g. by cinematographer/photographer Martin Rikli (1898-1969) documenting his Ethiopian expedition from 1935-36.  Another example ist the 1940 photograph album by Entomologist and Professor Lewis Berner conducting malaria research in the Gold Coast.
  • The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960,  Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, includes about 7,610 photographs organized in 76 separate albums, scrapbooks or loose collections and 230 glass lantern slides.
  • University of Wisconsin Digital Collections in African Studies, with the Harold E. Scheub Image Collection and “Africa Focus: Sights and Sounds of a Continent” offering 3000 slides and 500 photographs drawn from contributions by UWM faculty.
  • Liberian Photograph Collections as a part of Indiana University Liberian Collections, with Willie A. and Lucile S. Whitten Photography Collection (Liberia in the 1960s and 1970s), William V. S. Tubman Photograph Collection and Frederick D McEvoy Photograph Collection (1967-1968 Sabo labor migrants in southeastern Liberia).
  • Visual resources Relating to Africa at Yale, e.g. photographs taken by professor David E. Apter to complement field research on African nationalism and the transition to independence from 1952 to 1960.
  • Frobenius Institute’s online image database consists of 60.000 images produced mainly during numerous expeditions in the first half of the 20th century to Africa.
  • DEVA – Digitalisierung, Edition, Vernetzung, project by African Studies in Bayreuth. Available are the photographic archive by the linguist and theologian Ernst Dammann and his wife Ruth, mainly from field research in Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa, 1933-1975; photographs taken by the anthropologist Professor Otto Friedrich Raum during his teaching and research journeys in South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 1938-1968; and photographs taken during field research by Professor Gerd Spittler in North and West Africa since 1967, mainly on Tuarag and Hausa in Niger, Nigeria and Algeria.
  • Picture archive “African Independence Jubilees” of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, with more than 12,000 photos of the different events that were part of the official jubilee anniversary programs as well as other events that also celebrated the nation in some way (User’s Guide).
  • Photographic and Film collections, University of Cape Town, UCT Libraries
  • Digital Namibian Archive (DNA), a collaborative project by Utah Valley University and the Polytechnic of Namibia operating in conjunction with the Namibian National Archive. The digital photo collection includes e.g. the Stolze Album about Swakopmund.
  • Online photo archive of the University Library of Antanarivo, Madagascar.
  • The Cape Coast Archive, an effort by Ghanaian institutions together with the University of Virginia Library, and the United States branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), to document the unique cultural landscape of the Cape Coast, Ghana region. See especially the “Images from Military Museum” sub-collection.
  • Memórias de África e do Oriente, digitized photographs on lusophone Africa, e.g. a political activism collection of the Arquivo Histórico de São Tomé e Príncipe, 1975.
  • Swaziland Digital Archives, photo archive with photographs from Swaziland from 1860 to the 1990s, including explanations about the photos and small texts about the respective era. Many pictures were taken by the photographer Joseph Raucher.
  • picture archive of the Royal Geographical Society Picture Library
  • picture archive of the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (Photothèque Indigo)
  • the photograph holdings of the Genocide Archive Rwanda
  • the work of photographer and publisher of postcards Edmond Fortier, CENTRE EDMOND FORTIER, with photo exhibitions on Guinée 1905, Bénin 1908/09, Djenné 1906, Dogon 1905, St-Louis 1900, Tombouctou 1906
  • Nigeria’s Pan-Atlantic University presents its collection of rare historical documents and photographs via the Google Cultural Institute. Spanning 1851-1914, they tell the story of Nigeria’s formation as a colony. The second exhibition traces the transformation of Lagos from a cosmopolitan colonial trading center to West Africa’s largest metropolis.

Missionary archives

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