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A Spartan researcher helps digitize 
rare African photos and create 
global access.

As interest in African photography has swelled in recent decades, valuable archives of African photographers risk being lost forever to extreme temperatures, improper storage, theft and mistreatment. One Michigan State University researcher is working with an international team to address these issues in Mali by creating a digital archive that preserves the nation’s cultural heritage, ensures African photographers have agency over their work and provides access for education and scholarship.


Since 2011, MSU's Candace Keller has led a team of photographers, archival proprietors, conservators and students that has restored, digitized, catalogued and rehoused more than 100,000 black-and-white negatives dating from the 1950s to 80s. The materials hail from the archives of five prominent Malian photographers: Mamadou Cissé, Adama Kouyaté, Abdourahmane Sakaly, Malick Sidibé and Tijani Sitou.

The Archive of Malian Photography project includes a free, publicly accessible database featuring low-resolution versions of the photos, making them accessible for research and scholarship. The work was funded by a two-year, $52,000 grant from the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme and a subsequent three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation and Access Division.

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"There has been a lot of excitement about the project in Mali, a lot of appreciation and pride in their history," says Keller, associate professor of African art and visual culture in the Department of Art, Art History and Design. "There is a feeling that more people should know about these histories and more people should have access to these materials so that they become part of our global cultural history."

Correcting Misconceptions

Prior to this project, the only substantial online archives of this kind that existed were of photos taken by Westerners who had traveled to Africa, but none of photos taken by Africans for African audiences. Seven years later, this is beginning to change.

"These images can tell a different narrative. They can present a different story from African perspectives about African realities, which we really need in order to be better world citizens," Keller says. "Picturing modern cosmopolitan societies at various moments during the 20th century, these photographs challenge Western misconceptions about Africa."

Now through October 2018, several photos from the Archive of Malian Photography are on display at the MSU Museum as part of the Five Photographers of Mali exhibit.

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Each photo archive offers a unique perspective on local histories and practices, including images of military activities, foreign dignitary visits, prominent religious leaders, political figures, musicians, cultural ceremonies and icons, personal and family portraiture and the construction of national monuments and infrastructure. They also illustrate fluctuating trends in personal adornment, fashion, popular culture and photographic practices.

"They are really stunning, powerful images, and there's a lot that can be learned from them," Keller says. "There's so much history that is being preserved."

Preserving Heritage

The Archive of Malian Photography project stems from the research Keller has conducted since 2002 on the histories of photographic practice in Mali. That research has enabled her to work with more than 150 photographers and their families throughout the country. Through these interactions and partnerships, she has learned about their primary concerns, which include the physical preservation of the archives.

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"Their photographs are not stored in archival-safe materials," Keller says. "In the best cases, they are kept in mailing envelopes that are not acid-free, housed in cardboard boxes or metal trunks in the back room of a studio or in an attic where there is a lot of dust. In the hot season, midday temperatures often reach more than 120 degrees, and these environments typically lack air conditioning. In such cases, negatives can adhere to one another and many of them have been damaged by heat, flooding and abrasion."


© Abdourahmane Sakaly

The other main concern is the archives' vulnerability to theft due to their global commercial value. Since the late 1990s, an international market has grown for photos taken by West African photographers during the 1940s through 1980s.

"Over the years, some unscrupulous dealers, collectors, curators and even scholars have offered to 'borrow' negatives from certain archives in order to exhibit reprints overseas," Keller says. "They promise to invite the family to the opening and to return the negatives at that time. Unfortunately, the family is rarely informed of such events. Rather, the negatives are taken to another country, often in Europe, where exhibitions are held and prints are sold. The photos have been printed in calendars, made into postcards, published in catalogs and articles and sold online without permission. The families want the negatives back, but they typically never see them again."

To protect the archives from further exploitation in global markets while increasing their public accessibility around the world, the project only provides access to low-resolution photos on the Archive of Malian Photography website and at the Maison Africaine de la Photographie in Mali's capital city, Bamako. As a result, the images are commercially unusable in print. Yet, they are freely accessible to research and scholarship and able to be studied in detail on screen.

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"One of the things I like about working in the digital humanities, and why we began this project, is that digital media can enable greater access, to a greater number of people, in more languages and with more transparency than traditional print publications," Keller says. "In this case, it seemed to be the best way to address specific concerns that were raised by photographers and their families, who are often the custodians of these archives. Over the years, many of these individuals voiced the same needs and so we worked together to address them."

Creating a New Model

When work on the Archive of Malian Photography first began, a few similar projects existed, but on a much smaller scale and not near the magnitude or international scope. Now there is more interest in doing this kind of work in other countries, and the project's team sees its role as one of outreach, to have their project set an example from which others can learn.

"One of the things our website does is post all of our workflows, contractual agreements and tutorial videos so anybody can see the way we negotiated and collaboratively managed the project, and what we learned were best practices," Keller says. "Rather than reinvent the wheel, they can emulate, revise and improve upon them if they wish."

With additional funding, Keller hopes more photographers' collections can be added to the Archive of Malian Photography database.

"We have processed more than 100,000 negatives now, which is a small fraction when you think of all that exist, including national press archives and those of photographers who worked in other cities and regions at various historical moments," says Keller. "So, it's a work in progress. I imagine this will be a project that I will be engaged with for quite some time and, I expect, it will affect my research for years to come."

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Currently, the team is working on the photo archives of Félix Diallo, which will soon be added to the archive website, making it the sixth collection to be included in the online database.

The Archive of Malian Photography is a partnership among faculty and staff in MSU's Department of Art, Art History and Design and MATRIX: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at MSU; representatives from each photo archive, photographers working with each collection, photography students from the Center for Photographic Training and translators from the École Normale Supérieure in Bamako, Mali; undergraduate and graduate research assistants at MSU; the Maison Africaine de la Photographie in Bamako; the Malian Ministry of Culture; and the U.S. Embassy in Bamako.

A Closer Look at the Collaboration

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