Archive Researchers

Featuring: Sanja Göhre, Johannesburg

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You studied journalism in South Africa and then social sciences in the UK. How did you end up working in photo research?

It was a natural progression really, as both journalism and my social sciences degree were heavily research-based and actually just strengthened my research skills and elevated the kind of research I do to another level.

My journalism degree taught me to have a healthy respect for the subjectivity of sources and information and an insight into archives and the treasures hidden within those hallowed walls. Cutting my teeth at Reuters News Agency early on in my career taught me two things in the main: not to fear approaching anybody for whatever information I need and making sure that that information was accurate. Two news editors there, one of them called Rex Merrifield, really inculcated a love for chasing down information, and the source of accurate information, so I was lucky to have got that training from them. 

My social sciences degree was one long love affair with research-based assignments. It gave me the grounding I needed to understand people and organizing information around people. I think the only thing that would top it as a research would be a degree in anthropology!

You’ve been in this field for quite some time. In your opinion what makes a great researcher?

Persistence and passion. Both are absolutely essential and needed in packets for any researcher to find the right video clip, photo or document. You are constantly digging for information and it’s not like people are just waiting around to give it to you. Some are real information gatekeepers, and you have to find ways to get around that. So you must be persistent in your pursuit of the end goal.

And passion. I have worked with a few researchers over the years, and am currently working with a team of three researchers, and have noticed one big difference that separates the real researchers from those that only dabble: you will always hit a wall when doing research, it is inevitable. You research and research, one lead leads you to the next, but all of a sudden the scent ‘runs cold’. If you do not have that research calling, you will give up and say: sorry, there just is not that kind of pic available, or I don’t think that exists. But I have seen others say: if it’s the last thing I do, I will find that photo, this person, that document. You can’t help yourself. It becomes an obsession really. But nothing can be sweeter than that moment you find the very thing you have been after. Oh the ecstasy of it. I read another researcher on Archive Valley refer to it as the researcher’s ‘Eureka’ moment. It is exactly that, it is as if you yourself have discovered the missing link. I stay humble about it though. Often I run these finds past my better half, and he can’t see what the big fuss is about. That is why he is not a researcher!

South Africa has a rich history. What is it like to be an archive researcher in South Africa?

It is fascinating for so many reasons. Other countries have a somewhat more unitary and linear history that has often been stored in some kind of national archive as a first port of call, but our National Archives for example, are brilliant for archives on ‘colonial’ history, with items being collected from a white point of view with little regard for collecting black history (especially in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century). So archival researchers now have to almost contribute to unearthing new archive, trying to get people and photographers to look into their own family and personal archives to donate it to a project or an archive to tell a much fuller story of events that happened here during colonial times and during most of the 20th century.

There is also the idea of collecting ‘oral histories’, history that is passed down through generations by word of mouth (whether in praise songs, as family stories or during ceremonies) instead of captured and annotated and curated and archived the European way. It is a much more lively and vivid history than reams of paper and photos stuck in dark boxes never to see the light of day, but also runs the risk of being lost altogether.

Having said that, a lot of the research still happens the old-fashioned way as most archival material is not digitized. Archives are seriously resource-constrained here in South Africa, hence there are only pockets of them digitizing their collections. If you go online, you see how small that collection is compared to the materials they have stashed away in boxes, drawers etc and you just realize there is such a long way to go. And how you decide what to digitize and what not is a very big challenge for these archivists…

What are the best local archival sources you know in South Africa?

You have the National Archives and local university archives like Wits Historical Papers, the University of Cape Town’s Special Collections and the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Killie Campbell library that have very comprehensive collections on early South Africa and colonial South Africa – history collected and curated from a white perspective. More recently the archives have been adding ‘liberation history’ archival materials, to offer that balance but it is baby steps, as the archives are under-resourced and have to do a lot with very little (both money and staff). The Mayibuye archives at the University of the Western Cape is the go-to place for ‘liberation history’ archives. There is a very good local online photo agency called Africa Media Online, which offers local images at local prices, not like the APs and the Gettys of this world. For footage the local broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation is sitting on a goldmine of audio-visual material, but a lot of it has not been digitized or catalogued, and only ever existed in the mind of the head of the archives, whose retirement will mean a live walking catalogue will exit the building and with him the knowledge of what kind of footage the broadcaster is sitting on.

You’ve worked on many documentaries. Which ones are you most proud of? Any anecdotes?

I am most proud of a documentary I did in Bangladesh, called The Shipbreakers. I was working for the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. They needed somebody to document child labour used in the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh, and I had just arrived there from Geneva as a young documentary-maker. I was there for a couple of days with a cameraman from the ILO, Damien Riunaud, and for the first two to three days, every step we took was heavily chaperoned. No foreign media at that stage had been allowed onto the beaches of Bangladesh where the shipbreaking took place, and they were very nervous despite us saying that we were not from CNN or the BBC and that we did not want to do a sensationalistic piece. Eventually they thought we were harmless (after posing lots of harmless questions and looking very young and naïve – which I was at the time!!) and we had almost two days to shoot anywhere we wanted and got the most unbelievable footage taken to that date of swarms of men dismantling these huge passenger liners and oil tankers literally steel plate by steel plate. At one point I recall standing on top of one of these humongous ships and looking down below where all these men were working, and I thought this is like a scene out of Dante’s medieval hell. The living and working conditions were indescribable, with a high death rate, as up to 30 men could die in an explosion that happens when gas torches connect with oil fumes still in existence in the tankers. I was very aware that we were creating archive in that moment, as were the first to be given such intimate access, and we did our best to capture the essence of what was happening on the beachfront of Bangladesh for posterity.

Throughout your career, what has been the most exciting archival material you have come upon?

Something very simple actually. It is a picture of the first young black woman to graduate from the first black university of South Africa, called the University of Fort Hare. We were creating a timeline for the centenary of the University of South Africa, and her name came up in the draft text of the exhibition as the first woman to graduate. Given the dearth of archival material of these kinds of ‘firsts’, we all never expected to find a photo of her but I thought what the hell, let’s ask Fort Hare University, whose archive has always been termed ‘difficult to access’ and ‘disorganised’. I will never forget the feeling when—after being sent from pillar to post, and told it does not exist—one staff member came back to say: here she is. And there she was. If only photos could speak, because no other archive material has been found that can speak for her. But boy what story would this woman have to tell, who was the first black woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in South Africa.  The lesson here was never assume. He who does not ask, does not get. This find was so simple, yet had felt like it was going to be so impossible.

 archival photograph of the first black woman to graduate in south africa

© Courtesy of University of Fort Hare, via the Unisa exhibition

The lesson here was never assume. He who does not ask, does not get. This find was so simple, yet had felt like it was going to be so impossible.

Can you give us a sneak peek into a project you are currently working on?

I am currently working for the National Heritage Monument, which is the biggest sculptural display of its kind in the world. It is a long procession of life-size bronzes commemorating the liberation icons of South Africa’s history – an impressive line-up of heroes and heroines of the struggle for democracy in the country. It is called ‘The Long March to Freedom’ and there are two rules: everybody must be in motion, and everybody needs to have passed on.

I do all the research and content development with a team of three researchers. Together we draw up biographies and look for archival material related to all of the people featured in the procession, from early chiefs who were involved in the earliest wars of resistance to communists, Robben Island prisoners and freedom fighters who edged the country closer to peace.

The research spans about 350 years of colonial and liberation history – so there is quite a lot of research to be done. It is an absolute privilege to work on this project, a once in a lifetime opportunity that already has been worth every second working on it. I can only thank the organisation I work for, the National Heritage Project NPC for the freedom to research that we are given as a team. The stuff that we uncover blows our minds on a daily basis, as none of us grew up with this kind of history taught in schools, so it is a real eye-opener. Especially the early wars of resistance are profound in their testimony to the powers of the human spirit to fight against what it considers unjust.

And to be able to breathe life into a bronze statue by finding the right picture to go on the panel next to it or by finding little-known info about them to make them human has to be one of the most satisfying parts of the job.

We hope with this project also to inspire the next generation about history, and its relevance today. It does not have to be confined to history books and archives, we want people to experience it as something that has meaning to their lives today. And hopefully also to nudge some people to become researchers themselves. One thing the procession has revealed to me, how many black holes exist in our understanding of our own history, how many biographies need to be written, analyses of events and photo and footage research that can bring this most extraordinary part of our South African history to life.

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