Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Film Archives: A Decaying Visual History1

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Film Archives: A Decaying Visual History1

Article excerpt

The Communication Revolution and Modern Life

The 20th Century saw a movement from the Industrial Revolution to what we could call the Communication Revolution, and perhaps a newer revolution in the past 20 years, which we could characterise as the Information Revolution.

The Communication Revolution began with the discovery of photography (and shortly thereafter, cinema) at the end of the 19* Century. The Lumière brothers in France, Edward Muybridge in England, and Thomas Edison in America explored the possibilities of moving and still images. Rapid expansion of technology and opportunity saw the rise of revolutionary cinema in Russia, and the emergence of Hollywood - the beginnings of an industry that today engulfs our world with images.

The ability of a flickering image in a darkened room to quickly capture the imaginations of people led to the rise of cinema. Beginning as a representational medium that replaced painting, it rapidly evolved into an entertainment, with its image capture, reproduction and dissemination in a way unimaginable even 25 years ago.

Modern life would be incomprehensible without photography, video and cinema, all of which can now be accessed, produced, controlled and propagated by anyone with access to the internet. Our world has changed forever, and, more importantly, the way we see it. The creation of images used to be the domain of a small group of experts, now probably nearly half of the world's population make their own images.

The development of computers during the early and middle 20th Century began to change the way information was stored, processed and distributed. As computers became more powerful, people began to use them more and more for image capture and manipulation. The "analogue" or non-digital way of doing things had to be translated into "digital formats" leading to a rapid surge in technological changes to speed this process. Editing moved from physically cutting strips of film and glueing them together to a non-linear process, an electronic cut-and-paste scenario.

The video camera has developed from a primitive machine into a very sophisticated piece of electronic wizardry that today challenges the centuryold dominance of 35mm film as the acquisition medium of choice. The rapid leaps video has made in the past 20 years alone probably surpass all the technological advances in film and image production during the past century. Truly, we have put the world into a box.

Today, video is ubiquitous, from home security surveillance to scientific study, from CNN to home videos on YouTube, from traffic and military satellite pictures to snaps of our children and pets - and it is proliferating rapidly. We never know who is recording the world we are in at any present moment, with what purpose, what technology, and, more importantly for this conference, if and how it will be preserved, what is worthy of preservation, who will decide that, and how will the money be found to preserve it, and in what form will it be preserved?

Images are power. Images are knowledge. Images have value. When Africans give away their own images to foreign entities, we sell our intellectual property, we give up our cultural heritage to those who understand, and who seek to gain, the power of imagery. We allow others to seize our images and fashion them in their own way - a form of colonialism and exploitation that our libraries and archives must resist.

Value, Cost & Access

How does one define the "value" of an image, and how do we define its "legitimacy"? Which gatekeeper will decide which images are "worthy" of preservation and which are to be destroyed? What role does technology play in image creation? It is not neutral. What is a "private" image? What is a "public" image? What distinguishes a "professional" image from a "consumer" image, and does this confer any special extra value on it, and if so, how? These are tricky questions for all of us. …

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