The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
With a Little Unpaid Help From My Friends
Late in July, LENS, a New York Times blog that focuses on images and issues photographic, posted an interesting story by James Estrin. Magnum Photos, the legendary co-operative photo agency founded after World War II by photographers including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson, announced that to boost the visibility (and paid use) of the hundreds of thousands of images it has already placed online, it would look for 50 volunteer taggers to help key word its online images. Teaming up with Tagasauris, a company that specializes in tagging archival pictures, the goal was to enlist photo-enthusiasts, whose tagging suggestions would then be reviewed by three-to-five participants before they were posted.
What might be likened to an unpaid digital-archive-internship, promises to give participants opportunities to study older photos that were seldom seen, as well as new images by Magnum photographers as they enter the archive. For those interested in the work of photojournalists as diverse as Eve Arnold or Susan Meiselas, Elliott Erwitt or Tim Hetherington, and who want to support Magnum’s mission at time when professional photojournalism is being challenged both by the shrinking number of paying media venues and the rise of citizen journalism it seemed like a win-win opportunity.
Early in August, another article, this one in Britain’s Independent reported more on the story, and from a slightly different angle. Crowd-sourcing, as Alice-Azania Jarvis wrote, is not special, in itself. But what Magnum has done is introduce incentives like “leader board-style status-enhancers to virtual rewards” to make the process fun, competitive, and popular. Todd Carter, a Tagasaurus executive, suspects that if the tagging process were truly “gamified,” millions of people might want to sign up. (The gaming-tagging concept, as Effie Kapsalis of Smithsonian Institution Archives just pointed out to me, was first tested out by Google in 2006.) One potential consequence of that would be that many gamers might lack the historical and/or photographic expertise to comment on much beyond the more obvious subject matter the images depict. As it turns out, less than two weeks after the Times piece ran, thousands of people have already contacted Magnum, which—with its 295,000 Twitter followers and 135,000 Facebook fans—plans to stick to its goal of finding 50 knowledgeable volunteers, and now looks like it will have plenty of potential taggers to choose from.
Magnum is not alone in its outreach efforts to sign up the public to help in archival work. The Smithsonian currently has a public collection tagging initiative in the works.