The Archive: Manipulated

In Erika Larsen’s “Photograph Not Taken”, she shares a story about a time when she was documenting the recent suicide of a local 17-year-old girl. And in that process, there was a moment where the father completely opened up his emotions and the perfect photo presented itself. And there was no shutter click. She could not bring herself to take that photo. She had earlier shared her philosophy pertaining to that photo which is that when taking a photo, that creates a moment not only for the photographer, but also for the person being photographed. These are the moments that determine the make-up of the archive. The photographer must walk the fine line of documenting anything worthy of being seen by others while also respecting privacy in situations where it is required. In this way, their archive is not the full story. There are moments like the one Larsen shared that will never be shared with anybody else. Their archive is not crystal clear, but rather out of focus.

This “out of focus” aspect is touched on in Marlene Manoff’s “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” in the subheading titled “The Transparency of the Archive”. There are legitimate questions that call into question the accuracy of the various archives throughout history. No matter how it was recorded, the archived piece is from a particular point of view and it “. . . cannot provide transparent access to the events themselves.” (Manoff). You will never get the full picture because the archivist either purposely leaves out information, or their lack of knowledge prevents them from telling the full story. When the British first arrived in the new world, John Smith recorded his experience being saved from execution by the Native American princess Pocahontas. Historians, however, have come to realize that this was most likely a ceremony for him being recognized as a leader of a new Indian tribe, not an execution. Smith’s lack of knowledge of the local tribes inhibited his ability to clearly document what happened. However, for centuries, his inaccurate archival stood as fact. Taking Dennis Wood literally, for decades and at various points, inaccurate maps were archived as fact for many European countries. For a while, the records showed that the world was flat, not round. The records showed that Columbus had found Asia, but the continents of the Americas.


The photo above shows how easily an archivist can distort, in this case a photo, anything they want, even written documentation. It is easy to edit the original photo to tell the story of two drastically different events.

Digital media makers nowadays have the even greater responsibility of documenting worthwhile, accurate information. With the internet, as digital media archivist, we have a wide variety of resources to confirm and back up information we publish. We have a responsibility not to mislead. Why, in the information age, do we still have creators still publishing inaccurate information?



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