Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

2 posts from December 2015

16 December 2015

Using face recognition to find an EAP Christmas Card

Professor David Zeitlyn has written our final guest blog for 2015, again it is related to the British Library's current exhibition on West Africa. The post informs us about what can be discovered using face recognition software  - and it has a wonderfully festive theme.

The generous support of the Endangered Archives Programme enabled us to work with a Cameroonian studio photographer, Jacques Toussele, to archive his collection of negatives (and some remaining prints). The results are now available via the EAP catalogue (see descriptions in Zeitlyn 2010a and 2015)  

Jacques Toussele with photographs on the wall behind him.Jacques Toussele in 2001. Photo by author, CC BY-NC-ND.

The collection is a rare archive of local photographic practices which, because until relatively recently Mr Toussele was still working in the community where they were taken, have been documented with his assistance thus rendering the archive considerably more important for the future than a bare collection of negatives alone. Working with some helpers, he was able to recognise a few of the people in the photographs, enabling future research to be undertaken, which greatly enhanced the importance of the archive. The archive we have established enables scholars to raise a wide range of issues about the presentation of self, changing fashions and global patterns of influence as mediated by local norms of appropriate behaviour in public.

The convention among studio photographers in Cameroon (and elsewhere in West Africa) was that there was a two tier pricing structure. Clients paid a certain amount per print but had to make an additional payment if they wanted the negative as well. Strictly, therefore, the archiving project is concerned only with the negatives which the clients chose not to redeem.

Uses of Photographs

Clients commissioned photographs from studio photographers such as Photo Jacques for many reasons, but overwhelmingly the commonest reason was the requirement in Cameroon law for adult citizens to carry valid Identity Cards (which since the 1950s have included photographs). Once commissioned, the negative used to produce the passport style ID card photograph could also be used to produce other styles of prints. For example, I have discussed elsewhere (2010b) the style of photograph required by the state for the marriage certificates which document civil weddings.

As we shall see, these have another life in archives other than the municipal civil registry. Although photographers such as Jacques were sustained by the need for ID photographs such administrative requirements did not fully determine the sorts of images taken. They provided a secure economic basis for the studios, which also meant that for the clients the cost of other photographs was affordable.

In some cases a single print or image has had different uses at different points in time: the ID photos of the elderly are in many cases the only surviving photographs of grandparents. After their death the ID card may be copied so an enlarged print could be made of the passport photograph for display at the funeral and then hung on the wall of a surviving spouse or child.

Having established the archive the challenge has been how to start using it in research. One set of issues is posed by the lack of metadata. Unlike some other West African photographers (Augustt discussed by Werner or the better known case of Seidou Keita) Jacques Toussele did not maintain detailed records about his photographs. Although as part of the EAP project we did some basic cataloguing, one thing that background research in Mbouda has revealed is that local traditions are such that knowledge of names is not widely disseminated. A person may be recognised in a photograph and there may be agreement among informants (eg the cataloguers and Jacques Toussele himself) about their occupation and the village where they live, but no one would know their name, or at best a Christian name or nick name. Jacques Toussele, himself, was widely known as Photo Jacques but outside his immediate family few know his full name.

As a small step towards putting some order into the archive, I have done some collaborative research with colleagues (Andrew Zisserman and Omkar Parkhi) in the Oxford Engineering department to see how face recognition can help (see Zeitlyn et al 2010 for early experiments). One immediate task was being able to identify original negatives for the prints in the archive. There are a few actual prints which were either never collected or were test prints which had been filed rather than discarded. There are also some instances of negatives which are copy photographs. Someone will have come to the studio with a print and asked for a literal ‘photo copy’. When the original had been taken by Jacques Toussele, the negative may still exist in the archive but without a catalogue (metadata) it was impossible to locate. This is where face recognition, or in some cases pattern matching, can help match the print and original negative.

  Studio portrait of a man   Close up portrait of the same man

EAP054/1/161/248 Negative (dvd226_129)

EAP054/1/66/150 Double print eg for ID card or other administrative use (dvd297f1_017)

There is a further use which is topical: the recycling and refashioning of photographs by cutting, pasting and re-photographing to create family Christmas cards. Although not common in the Jacques Toussele archive, they do help us get a handle on the question of completeness: just how many other photographs were taken but which have not survived? It also allows us to explore how, over time, negatives might have moved accidentally between storage boxes.

So consider this Christmas card image

Cut out photograph of a couple with oval cut outs of babies around the central image.EAP054/1/7 dvd246_018

It was found in EAP054/1/37 box38 Old red Obi Brothers photographic paper box, which had 01/10/1990 written on the outside of the box. Using face recognition we were able to match several of the constituent images in this collage with prints in a mixed box of passport size prints (EAP054/1/93: Jacques Toussele Photographs: box 100 [c 1990])

Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/93/2 box100 dvd278_056 (top: north) 

Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/93/3 box100/dvd278_057 (bottom: south)

Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/93/4 box100/dvd278_058 (north-east) 

Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/93/5 box100/dvd278_059 (south-west) 

Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/93/6 box100/dvd278_060 (south-east) 

Other possible matches were

  Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/2/201 box2/dvd99_070 


Photograph of a baby.
EAP054/1/2/121 box2/dvd101_121 

Of the nine images in this collage, face recognition locates five as well as identifying some possible matches which my human eye rejects. Sadly we cannot find the central image of the adults. Most of the matching images were in a box of miscellaneous passport size prints. In one case the print has been trimmed to the oval matte clearly visible on the Christmas Card. The other trimmed prints have not survived, nor have the negatives from which they come. So we have some evidence for how much more has been lost than exists in the material that we have been able to archive. I don’t take this as bad news. Any archive is always incomplete, and one of this nature perhaps more than most. As a seasonal reflection I think that demonstrating that it is possible to do any matching within the archive is an extraordinary finding and one that promises much for the new year.

Further reading

Introduction to the project

Zeitlyn, David. 2015. "Archiving a Cameroonian photographic studio." In From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives, 529-544. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0052.16

Zeitlyn, David. 2010a. "Photographic Props / The Photographer as Prop: The Many Faces of Jacques Toussele."  History and Anthropology 21 (4):453- 477. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2010.520886.

Other work cited

Werner, J.-F. 2014. De la photographie africaine en tant qu’innovation technique. Continents manuscrits COMA

Zeitlyn, David, Ananth Garre, C. V. Jawahar, and Andrew Zisserman. 2010. "The Archive. Where Is the Archive?"  Photography & Culture 3 (3): 331–342. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175145109X12804957025679.

Zeitlyn, David. 2010b. "Representation/Self-representation: A Tale of Two Portraits; Or, Portraits and Social Science Representations."  Visual Anthropology 23 (5): 398 – 426. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08949460903472978.



03 December 2015

Archive of Malian Photography

This is the third blog in our series celebrating West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, the current exhibition at the British Library. This time we are delighted to have a piece written by Dr Candace Keller who was the grant holder for EAP449.


Mali has remained the international nexus of African photography for over twenty years. Since 1994, its capital has been home to the Rencontres de Bamako photography biennial and has produced some of the continent’s most globally renowned professional photographers.

Man stands next to a scanner.

In collaboration with the British Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, MATRIX: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Maison Africaine de la Photographie in Mali, Michigan State University has been digitising, cataloguing, rehousing and will make available about 100,000 negatives from the archives of the nation’s prominent photographers Mamdou Cissé (1930-2003), Adama Kouyaté (b. 1927), Abdourahmane Sakaly (1926-1988), Malick Sidibé (b. 1936), and Tijani Sitou (1932-1999).

Map of Mali.

Photography was introduced to present-day Mali during the 1880s by French military officers and, later, colonial administrators, missionaries, and expatriates. By the 1940s, an African market for photography had developed in the French Sudan, as Mali was then known, and its professional photographers maintained a monopoly over the medium until the 1980s.

  Portrait of two men in western dress.
EAP449/2 Abdourahmane Sakaly, Portrait of Two Men in the Studio, Bamako, January 1958

As a result, their archives contain rare visual documentation of social, cultural, and political life as well as processes of urban development in the country and in French West Africa more broadly. Spanning the eras of colonialism, political independence, socialism, and democracy, their archives record important transformations in Mali’s capital and smaller towns along the Niger River such as Mopti and Ségu during the twentieth century.

A man in traditional dress is seated and looks at the camera. A crowd of men stand in the background.EAP449/1 Mamadou Cissé, Hunter’s Festival, Ségu, 1967

  Malian President Moussa Traoré and Senegalese President Léopold Sedar Senghor stand next to each other.EAP449/1/1 Mamadou Cissé, Malian President Moussa Traoré and Senegalese President Léopold Sedar Senghor at the Senou airport, Bamako, c.1972

Employed by colonial and national governments, while operating private studio enterprises, each photographer’s collection houses unique perspectives on local histories and practices, including personal and family portraiture, military activities, visits of foreign dignitaries, and images of the 1968 and 1991 coup d’états. They also feature the construction of national monuments, governmental structures, bridges, dams, roadways, as well as prominent religious leaders, political figures, cultural ceremonies, and fluctuating trends in personal adornment, popular culture, and photographic practices from the 1940s to the present. 

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman. The textile for her dress and headdress are the same.EAP449/1/1 Mamadou Cissé, Portrait of a Woman, Ségu, c.1960

Group of young men and women wearing both African print and 1970s fashion.Malick Sidibé, Group Portrait, Bamako, November 1978

Funded by the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme and the National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation and Access division, since 2011, this project has worked to address the following significant needs for international scholarship and the preservation of Mali’s cultural heritage because:

  • Archives are not catalogued, appropriately preserved or accessible for research and education
  • Materials are vulnerable to mistreatment, theft, and exploitation due to their global commercial value
  • Harsh climactic conditions jeopardize their physical integrity

Several cardboard boxes.Abdourahmane Sakaly’s archives, Bamako, 2010

A pile of letters. A pile of letters.
Mamadou Cissé’s archives, Bamako, 2011

To preserve and promote Mali’s cultural heritage and the artistic legacies of these photographers, this project ensures that:

  • Archival collections remain in Mali
  • Negatives are better protected and preserved
  • High-resolution scans are preserved
  • Low-resolution copies are made freely accessible online
  • A digital repository is managed by MATRIX at Michigan State University
  • Access in Mali is provided by the Maison Africaine de la Photographie

  Moussa Kalapo sitting by his computer writing something. An archival box is nearby.
Moussa Kalapo, Archive of Malian Photography, Bamako, 2014

Home page of the Malian Photography website Archive of Malian Photography website under production, November 2015. Website will launch December 2015

These primary sources are significant contributions to global histories of photography as well as historical and cultural studies of western Africa. Valuable for a wide range of audiences, from interested lay persons to photographers, scholars, and students, they benefit teaching and research around the world across a variety of humanistic disciplines, such as history, anthropology, political science, art, aesthetics, and African studies.

As part of the Archive of Malian Photography project, 28,000 negatives by Abdourahmane Sakaly and Mamadou Cissé are now accessible on the British Library’s database under EAP449.


Abdourahmane Sakaly (1926-1988) Bamako  

Sakaly was Senegalese (of Moroccan heritage) and came to Bamako in 1946. There, he began practicing photography and opened Studio Sakaly in 1956. From the late ‘50s to the ‘70s, his studio experienced great success. In addition to portraiture, Sakaly documented social events and private functions for the military, police officers, and other elites in the city.


Mamadou [Mohammed] Cissé (1930-2003) Mopti, Ségu, Bamako

In 1949, Cissé learned photography in Mopti. He joined the French colonial army in 1952 which sent him to Senegal, Vietnam, Laos, and Algeria where he took portraits and identification photographs. After Malian independence in 1960, Cissé became a photographer for the Malian army and for the national news agency (A.N.I.M.), which sent him to Ségu to open and direct a studio. When A.N.I.M. (today A.M.A.P.) closed its operations in Ségu during the ‘80s, Cissé returned to Bamako to work at the agency’s headquarters and remained there until 1986, when he retired two years after opening Studio Cissé.


For questions or more information about this project, please contact Candace M. Keller, Project Director and Associate Professor of African Art, Michigan State University: [email protected]

For more on the exploitation, theft, and pilfering challenges this project seeks to address, consult: C. Keller, “Framed and Hidden Histories: West African Photography from Local to Global Contexts,” African Arts 47, 4 (Winter 2014): 36-47.