Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 12th 2017 Contents tobagotoday.co.tt July 12 - 2017
The lost visual history
It's not as if it wasn't recorded, because
But an alarming slice of the visual legacy
of Trinidad and Tobago has simply disap-
peared, showing itself only as thin fins slic-
ing a surface of oceanic emptiness, a hint
of the greatness that once lurked below.
Jerry Llewelyn was a photographer I
admired, and by that I mean that I was
absolutely envious of both his skill and the
vast collection of images that talent had won
I last saw him---this man against whom
I'd tested my early mettle photographing the
local theatre in the 1980's and who would
become a Chief Photographer at the Trini-
dad Express---on a road in Tobago, where he
was living in a running battle with cancer.
I asked after his work then. There had
been a flood where he lived in Trinidad; I
never found out if anything had survived.
After his passing, I contacted his wife,
thinking that a posthumous exhibition of
his work would be a good way to mark his
time with us.
What I got was a large envelope used to
hold 11 x 14 inch photographic paper with
six or seven photographs in it. I eventually
returned the work, overcoming my tremen-
dous sadness and sense of loss with some
difficulty. Thinking of it still stings.
I wish I could say this was an isolated
loss of valuable images recording the histo-
ry of this country, but it is not, and the
story spirals downward with dizzying final-
ity when the work of the media of record
in T&T is factored in.
First, there is the institutional loss, a con-
sequence of the way that media is produced
On a typical day in the film era of pho-
tojournalism, around 30 rolls of film would
be exposed and processed in the course of
working through the daily menu of stories.
From each story, between two to five imag-
es would be selected and printed for con-
sideration by the assigning desk.
Most stories ran with a single photo and
that photo would be sent to the library,
where a cutline would be glued to the back
of the image, alongside the pencilled crop
marks and resizing instructions written and
drawn by the subeditor who handled the
The other photos drifted into a kind of
limbo that led to them piling up like grayscale
drifts. With no set destination, most would
At TTT, the broadcasts were on film first,
then on tapes of different specifications.
Once these primary recording sources became
reusable, they were, inevitably, erased and
pressed into service again. The moving image
history of this country, imprinted on iron
oxide smeared on plastic ribbon would be
degaussed, obliterated cassette by cassette.
Libraries were notoriously permeable.
Within three years of the attempted coup
in 1990, my negatives from that terrifying
five days quietly disappeared from the Guard-
ian's library, never to be seen again.
The existing primary resources of this
country's history are primarily the work of
cussed individuals who held on to their work
and kept moving it forward.
Christopher Laird spent a small fortune
creating first a climate controlled archive for
the raw and edited tapes of Banyan, and
then on transferring magnetic tape to bits,
digitising thousands of clips and shows into
a modern format.
The Noel and Mary Norton archive of
photographs fiercely protected by Mrs Nor-
ton, became the legacy of their family, scru-
pulously passed on to their six children for
continued preservation and exploitation as
the staggering visual resource it represents.
The difference between work that survives
and imagery that does not is simply the
difference between the values that are placed
on the work by its owners.
Newspapers and broadcast media have
traditionally treated their output as a prod-
uct to be sold and managed the raw inputs
according to traditional business models, but
information doesn't work that way.
There is value in both raw footage and in
edited, presented works, but both have suf-
fered terribly over the last century, and the
damage has sometimes been complete.
Text always seems to manage to survive.
Someone, somewhere, always has a clipping,
or a copy of a publication from which the
words can be recaptured and returned to
Images do not fare so well, their fragility
only increasing in the digital age.
Where once it was necessary to pick up
a physical box of photos, tapes or negatives
and take it out for disposal, deletion with
the twitch of a cursor is even more final and
Staggering quantities of images captured
in this century alone have been lost to over-
loaded servers, inadequate and untested
backups and a simple disinterest in preserv-
ing work that hasn't yet had its value test-
ed.Why is any of this important? Why change
a methodology that's worked for decades
For one critical reason. Journalistic author-
Successful media houses in the coming
decades will be those who succeed in earn-
ing both trust and respect from their audi-
ences and one of the critical tools of that
positioning will be the depth and resonance
of the archives of publications and broad-
casters of record.
The media has always sat somewhere
between rumshop arguments and formal
libraries as resources of opinion and fact.
The capacity of media houses to represent
their authority through deep archives of
accessible information will increasingly be
a critical distinguishing factor in setting
professional journalism apart from pervasive
Turning even the iceberg tip that's left of
most visual archives in today's media hous-
es into a useful resource is going to be a
costly, resource intensive exercise, but I
believe it's going to be critical to defining
the value of the professional journalism
product in the decades to come.
For images, particularly those existing only
in film formats, the challenge is particular-
ly daunting. The golden era for digitising
film ran between 1995 and 2005 and resourc-
es for doing that work have dried up dra-
matically, particularly in the last decade.
Film scanners are now either cheap, but
useless for serious archiving work, hope-
lessly out-of-date, needing older computers
to drive them or staggeringly expensive.
The challenge is real, but the opportuni-
ty to address this issue continues to drift to
the far horizon. (Trinidad Guardian)
• Next week, how a 125-year-old news-
paper brought every page they ever
published to the Internet.
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