Collecting Photos: A Modern Problem

The last global conflict broke several historical records. Namely, it was one of the most widely photographed conflicts. Unlike the Crusades or the Carthaginian war, most people can access thousands of high quality images of battlefields and important events from 19th century conflicts and more so of 20th century wars. Besides the peculiar temporal connections this engenders, it also opens up the problem of how photos are archived, used and, most problematically, re-produced. 

Imagine an anthropologist (a classical one) goes into a village to speak with locals. He interviews several individuals, attends certain community gatherings, lives around the place a bit and leaves to write his research paper. He will attribute the sources of his study to his interlocutors/informants. Who is the historian’s equivalent? The answer: a cacophony of documents, all neatly referenced, often from various sources and archives. The archive is the historian’s village, documents are his informants.

However, documents are largely accessible and entire institutions exist to help researchers get to the ones they need. What follows is a rat-race between academics to publish findings and photos. One can hardly continue the exercise of comparing the practice to an anthropologist. There is no archive of people who are legally bound to speak to you, nor reference codes for individuals, or digitised conversations in abundance. The anthropologist’s archive is scattered across people who each individually own their information and collectively share it at the same time.

In this sense, the historian’s practice is inherently violent. One needs no permission from one’s sources. There is only the endeavour of finding them, obtaining them, collecting them, like a hunt.

Therefore, the reproducibility of text and especially images presents a deep conundrum for such a historian. It is as if anyone can obtain a copy of a trophy animal or a diamond mined from deep below earth’s crust. The peculiar problem of reproducing and publishing old photos is akin to the problem at the bottom of historical research itself: who should own and manage our memories?



Of course, the problem of reproducibility is much older than today. Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ is a timeless text revisited countless times by scholars. In it, he outlines the idea of the ‘authentic’, the original from which copies are made. Benjamin argues that the original art-work, typed document, or photo, no matter how many copies are made, can never be replaced. It possesses ‘aura’: presence of absence. Feeling it, holding it, makes one emotional at the thought of experiencing a stronger presence through the object. See for example the way people visit Auschwitz as a location and pass by the metal gates, or the way a collector interacts with authentic items used in war. There is reverence to something bigger than the object in its physical sense and much more attention to its story and the absence it represents and signifies.

Furthermore, it is impossible to reproduce a German machine gun with all its unique weathering and patina exactly in a matter of seconds. However, an original photo or document can be, triggering more unexpected issues. Cameras and scanners can create near perfect copies of such things, eliminating any distinction between the authentic and the fake. Apart from the physical, and perhaps sensorial properties of the original, a good copy of a document or photo has the same effect. 

Photos do more than documents. They do not outline nor dictate our past. There is no transcription that perfectly narrates a photo. It can only be visited and experienced visually. Photos, then, present us with a peculiar way of experiencing the past. They are much like windows into a past present, as if a blink of an eye is captured forever.

If photos are emotional gateways to the past, more powerful than any document, who should own them? Should they be re-produced? 

Collectors and museums remedy the reproducibility of photos by creating an artificial scarcity. Although authenticity is found in the perfectly replicable image, the suspension of digitization or the barring of distribution withholds the photo’s authenticity. However, this is done at the risk of having no copies available in the event of degradation or damage, and at the critical cost of gatekeeping the past itself. More so, the owner of such artefactsor documents effectively becomes the sole owner of such memories, especially in the case of photos. One can write of the past but we cannot go back to take a picture of it. Such photos as ‘moments in time’ therefore make their owner the guardian of those memories; a position often (but not always) abused. 

This practice, I argue, stems from a disposition to the practice of history as a game of collecting. In this game, one discovers documents and photos, orders them neatly together to form a semblance of a story to be published or hoarded under one’s name. 


The missing point here is that no scarcity can replace or enhance the photo’s real value. It is more about the contents of such photos rather than the photo itself. It is their information and story that is worth experiencing. 

The last war has taken up the symbolic proportions of the great siege but still contains the temporal intimacy of one or two generations. Hence, personal accounts are confused and mixed with historical texts, making it seem as if a personal voice can recount the history of an entire island for several years. This general employment of personified history is most evident in photos, as each is treated as its very own fragment of the last siege. Photos remain, no matter how much time passes, much like a personal diary (but in some ways even more so), a single person’s memory. In view of historiography as a collection of individual perspectives, one would expect photos to be the primary commodity through which history is constituted and distributed, which it is.

The photo collector should subscribe to the idea that, like documents, photos do more than just illustrate articles and books. They are more than just evidence for factual information. They are experiential. That is, they each contain a certain experience of being. It is the collector’s or archive’s responsibility to ensure this potential is not hoarded and, eventually, wasted. However, once the war shifts entirely from memory to history, the sensitivity of photos will drastically reduce, transporting them to the symbolic level of the historic document: reproducible without losing much of its authenticity.

By Nikolai Debono, for Battlefront Malta