Journalism 2017: The lost visual history

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Above: Getting from atoms to bits is the great challenge of modern digital archiving. Illustration by Andrea Danti/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1101 for July 11, 2017

It’s not as if it wasn’t recorded, because it was.

But an alarming slice of the visual legacy of Trinidad and Tobago has simply disappeared, showing itself only as thin fins slicing a surface of oceanic emptiness, a hint of the greatness that once lurked below.

Jerry Llewelyn was a photographer I admired, and by that I mean that I was absolutely envious of both his skill and the vast collection of images that talent had won for him.

I last saw him, this man against whom I’d tested my early mettle photographing the local theatre in the 1980’s and who would become a Chief Photographer at the Trinidad Express, on a road in Tobago, where he was living in a running battle with cancer.

I asked after his work then. There had been a flood where he lived in Trinidad; I never found out if anything had survived.

After his passing, I contacted his wife, thinking that a posthumous exhibition of his work would be a good way to mark his time with us.

What I got was a large envelope used to hold 11 x 14 inch photographic paper with six or seven photographs in it. I eventually returned the work, overcoming my tremendous sadness and sense of loss with some difficulty. Thinking of it still stings.

I wish I could say this was an isolated loss of valuable images recording the history of this country, but it is not, and the story spirals downward with dizzying finality when the work of the media of record in T&T is factored in.

First, there is the institutional loss, a consequence of the way that media is produced in T&T.

On a typical day in the film era of photojournalism, around 30 rolls of film would be exposed and processed in the course of working through the daily menu of stories.

From each story, between two to five images would be selected and printed for consideration by the assigning desk.

Most stories ran with a single photo and that photo would be sent to the library, where a cutline would be glued to the back of the image, alongside the pencilled crop marks and resizing instructions written and drawn by the subeditor who handled the page.

The other photos drifted into a kind of limbo that led to them piling up like grayscale drifts. With no set destination, most would eventually disappear.

At TTT, the broadcasts were on film first, then on tapes of different specifications. Once these primary recording sources became reusable, they were, inevitably, erased and pressed into service again. The moving image history of this country, imprinted on iron oxide smeared on plastic ribbon would be degaussed, obliterated cassette by cassette.

Libraries were notoriously permeable. Within three years of the attempted coup in 1990, my negatives from that terrifying five days quietly disappeared from the Guardian’s library, never to be seen again.

The existing primary resources of this country’s visual history are a consequence of cussed individuals who held on to their work and kept moving it forward.

Christopher Laird spent a small fortune creating first a climate controlled archive for the raw and edited tapes of Banyan, and then on transferring magnetic tape to bits, digitizing thousands of clips and shows into a modern format.

The Noel and Mary Norton archive of photographs fiercely protected by Mrs Norton, became the legacy of their family, scrupulously passed on to their six children for continued preservation and exploitation as the staggering visual resource it represents.

The difference between work that survives and imagery that does not is simply the difference between the values that are placed on the work by its owners.

Newspapers and broadcast media have traditionally treated their output as a product to be sold and managed the raw inputs according to traditional business models, but information doesn’t work that way.

There is value in both raw footage and in edited, presented works, but both have suffered terribly over the last century, and the damage has sometimes been complete.

Text always seems to manage to survive. Someone, somewhere, always has a clipping, or a copy of a publication from which the words can be recaptured and returned to use.

Images do not fare so well, their fragility only increasing in the digital age.

Where once it was necessary to pick up a phyical box of photos, tapes or negatives and take it out for disposal, deletion with the twitch of a cursor is even more final and essentially invisible.

Staggering quantities of images captured in this century alone have been lost to overloaded servers (“We needed to make space.”), inadequate and untested backups and a simple disinterest in preserving work that hasn’t yet had its value tested.

Why is any of this important? Why change a methodology that’s worked for decades with success?

For one critical reason. Journalistic authority.

Successful media houses in the coming decades will be those who succeed in earning both trust and respect from their audiences and one of the critical tools of that positioning will be the depth and resonance of the archives of publications and broadcasters of record.

The media has always sat somewhere between rumshop arguments and formal libraries as resources of opinion and fact. The capacity of media houses to represent their authority through deep archives of accessible information will increasingly be a critical distinguishing factor in setting professional journalism apart from pervasive amateur competition.

Turning even the iceberg tip that’s left of most visual archives in today’s media houses into a useful resource is going to be a costly, resource intensive exercise, but I believe it’s going to be critical to defining the value of the professional journalism product in the decades to come.

For images, particularly those existing only in film formats, the challenge is particularly daunting. The golden era for digitizing film ran between 1995 and 2005 and resources for doing that work have dried up dramatically, particularly in the last decade.

Film scanners are now either cheap, but useless for serious archiving work, hopelessly out-of-date, needing older computers to drive them or staggeringly expensive.

The challenge is real, but the opportunity to address this issue continues to drift to the far horizon.

Next week, how a 125-year-old newspaper brought every page they ever published to the Internet.