Last year, in a post I wrote after visiting the British colonial archives, I commented on the fact that millions of photos from the colonial era are still sitting in boxes, yet to be cataloged. And those photos which have been archived often have nondescript titles, such as “Indian boy in native dress.” I suggested that archivists could use the power of the web, just as Madonna is doing with her photos. So I was happy today to learn about Project Naming.
Project Naming started in 2001 when Inuit youth took 500 digitized photos taken by Richard Harrington during the 1940s and 50s and asked their elders to help identify the people and places in the pictures. This program was slowly expanded to include more and more photos, but in 2005 they started a new phase of the project in which “more than 1,700 photographs” from Canadian archives “were digitized and sent to Nunavut Sivuniksavut for identification.”
Although much of the project has been about bringing Nunavut youth together with their elders in a very personal way, the project has a page entitled “The Naming Continues” where web visitors can help identify those photos which have not yet been cataloged.
I think it would be great if more archives had sites like this. One possibility I see is that anthropologists could help out by doing what these Nunavut youth are doing. Before going off to the field you could download relevant uncataloged photos and then ask your informants about them. Talking about photos is a great way to start an interview, and who knows, maybe someone will recognize some faces! And it needn’t just be uncataloged photos. That photo listed as “Indian boy in native dress,” surely someone can identify the specific type of clothing and the region of India where it is worn … even if we never find out his name.