The Naming Project

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 And those photos which have been archived often have nondescript titles, such as “Indian boy in native dress.”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.

4 thoughts on “The Naming Project

  1. Kerim has a great suggestion, and one that I did in the field. For my dissertation fieldwork, I was in a village that had been a Maryknoll mission center, and the Maryknollers back in New York had great photos from the 1920s on that I was able to scan and show my neighbors. I did what Kerim suggested, to find out more about the context of the photographs – and it turned out that one of two teenagers was my neighbor (who was in 1993 quite elderly, and has since passed away). Anyway, it turned out that the other teenager was another key informant, and as a result of that photo, my neighbor (not the one in the photo, his then around 50 year old son) explained the whole story behind the photograph (and the subsequent issues that came up because of Maoist period unfortunate incidents). I got a great set of ethnographic data just from the stories behind that one photo.
    Unfortunately, many archives can’t afford to scan photos and make them available. I found the photos by going through old filing cabinets full of stuff – the archivist was doing his best to preserve as much as he could, but many of the photos that I found were lower on the priority list. I always thought there were at least ten more dissertations just from the material in those archives.
    There are also so many more hidden resources out there, in people’s attics and shoeboxes (a la Susan Sontag). One of my students discovered my interest in sports in China and East Asia, and brought me a photo of her Japanese father (or grandfather, I would have to look at my notes) with Babe Ruth (who visited China and Japan as part of a barnstorming team; this is an article I would someday love to write). So in the meanwhile, gems such as that photo remain on my hard drives (plural, multiple backups!) for that someday when I have a chance to do something with them.

  2. There’s an interesting article by Josh Bell about doing a very similar thing with photographs taken by Alfred Cort Haddon and his daughter Kathleen Rishbeth in Papua in 1914. He suggests that this kind of project of visual repatriation, while bringing the community together in the way Kerim mentions, also reinvests the community with a degree of agency and control over what anthropologists write about them.

    There’s another observation he makes, however, that I think is very interesting and worth keeping in mind. The outcome of such projects can be unexpectedly ambivalent: some people would rather forget than remember. The grandchildren of that “Indian boy in native dress” may not appreciate seeing a picture of their grandfather as something they now see as ‘backwards native’, regardless of the authenticity of the photograph. The past is a foreign country, and foreigners are rejected just as often as welcomed.

    Here’s the citation:
    Bell, Joshua. 2003. “Looking to See: Reflections on Visual Repatriation in the Purari Delta, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea.” In Laura Peers and Alison Brown (eds.) Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader. Pp. 111-121. London: Routledge Press.

  3. Give your ancestors their due. Bill Fenton wrote about this method over 40 years ago in his 1966 Ethnohistory article “Field Work, Museum Studies, and Ethnohistorical Research”:

    “Going to the field with photographs of the masks I sought information about them from former owners and carvers and I soon observed the performance of maskers in ceremonies. The Iroquois proved much better custodians of information about these objects than the curators of museums with all their potential for record keeping.” (p.77)

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