The power and importance of photos

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By Ellen Ndeshi Namhila WINDHOEK We live in a visual age. We have become used to images, we take it for granted that every piece of information is accompanied by a picture. Not only the written, but also the spoken word is increasingly enhanced, spiced, and made more interesting by pictures. Even the latest communication media, the internet and the cell phone, did not take long to incorporate images. Photography has made this possible, and we just take it for granted that all those pictures are here with us to stay. But are they, really? Those working with archives of photographic images know that they are dealing with a very fragile medium. Sometimes fragile in the literal sense – if you drop a glass negative, it will be shattered to a thousand pieces. But they are vulnerable also in many other respects. The physical carrier, the thin layer carrying the image, the silver or pigment, which paints the image that we see, can all easily be damaged by moisture, light, heat, chemicals, insects, and some can even self-destruct after some time. It is almost a miracle that still so many pictures have survived. You see me standing in front of posters using the images of two famous Namibian leaders. The photo of Maharero Tjamuaha was taken almost exactly 130 years ago, the other one of Hendrik Witbooi is not dated, but also over 100 years old. We are very fortunate that these pictures have been taken, and have survived to this day. To have them makes our history, our understanding of the past, and the teaching of our children so much richer. There is the saying that a picture tells more than a thousand words. The digital age has given us more opportunities and better methods to reproduce and disseminate pictures. We can keep high quality images in electronic format. Does that mean we can forget the originals, and leave them to decay? On the contrary, it teaches us that we are very fortunate if we still have access to the precious originals. Maybe in the future, with improved technology, we can still get more and enhanced information out of these originals than we can today. The digital image is not less fragile than other information carriers, it is even more vulnerable, as we all have already experienced when we suddenly could not read a diskette or play a CD anymore. So let us cherish and preserve the precious original witnesses of the past and give them the proper care that they deserve. It is sad, but unfortunately true, that for a long time photos have been treated as a stepchild in the archives and library profession. For too long they have been regarded as mere illustrations, and not as proper archives which have to be treated with due respect. The very specialised knowledge and skills, which are required for the preservation of photos, are not commonly known and practised, not only in our region but also all over the world. Therefore I am very happy that the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) through its IFLA Africa Section has sponsored this practical hands-on workshop to familiarise librarians and archivists from the SADC region with the necessary techniques and their theoretical background. This is but a first step. Proper dealing with our pictorial heritage needs not only knowledge and skills, but also specialised equipment and materials, most of which are often lacking and difficult to procure. So, this workshop will only be the first step in a process, which has to be continued and sustained. I wish to thank all the participants who made it to this workshop, especially those from our SADC neighbours for all the efforts you made to attend this regional workshop. – The writer officially opened a workshop on Monday on the preservation of archive photos, which ends today. Librarians from Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Lesotho and Swaziland are attending.