Who We Are, Who We Were, Who We’ll Be

The problem of what “voice”, so to speak, an archive has, and what it articulates through it’s body of work, wasn’t a concept that particularly surprised me when I read Deborah A. Thomas’s article, Caribbean Studies, Archive Building, and the Problem of Violence. After all, the saying goes that history is written by the victor (or, as an undergraduate professor once told me, it’d decided by who has the bigger army) and it’s easy to see even today that certain historical events have been privileged while others are relegated to one-liners in books…. if we’re lucky. What I was somewhat surprised by, was the idea of an archive having a very specific concept to articulate through the works that it amasses, and of it working not simply as a record of the past, but as a “an articulation of processes that both constrain and open up the range of futures that are possible at any given moment”, as Thomas states. Of course we hear phrases like “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it”, but the idea that an archive is not just a cautionary tale, but moreso a living thing is a completely different concept, especially in the idea of counter-archives.

Counter-archives, Thomas explains, “are oriented toward the creation of a historical consciousness, one that stands n opposition to forms of state memory”, which is especially important in the case of the Caribbean. As an area and a people once under colonial rule, there is a running discourse about the Caribbean that is not self-generative, so with independence must come a new history that doesn’t tell things from the viewpoint of those who came almost solely to profit with little regard for any people that were considered to be an “other”, be it by race or class.

While many of the archives Thomas describes in her article are historical or literary or anthropological, I was fascinated by The Caribbean Photo Archive and if/how it functioned in the way she described counter-archives. After all, by the name alone, it seems like photographs would have no agenda, even if chosen specifically. Even the About section only has a sentence dedicated to subject matter (past the islands covered), stating that “Subjects depicted include plantation life, natural disasters, tourism, hotels, markets, education, military, churches, architecture, government, home life and recreation”. What could be the agenda here?

I kept asking myself that as I clicked through the breathtaking photos after being redirected to The Caribbean Photo Archive’s Flickr account where all the images are hosted. There didn’t seem to be any privileging of race or class in the photos, nor people over the landscape, and even an album of the covers of vintage books sat among the depictions of people long gone in places that may have changed drastically. What was the purpose? The answer I eventually came to was simple — it was an archive of truth. The About section of the Archive proudly states that “Nearly every photographic format is represented including salt prints, albumen prints, gelatin silver prints, stereocards, carte-de-visites, cabinet cards, and glass slides”, and that “to provide accurate descriptions and dates for the photographs”. The goal, it seems, is to create not a theoretical Caribbean through an extrapolation of someone’s words into a generalization, but to create a literal picture of the times. To show the actual people who worked the land, the actual land itself. The point is to give a true-to-life setting to the words written in someone’s diary or travel log, to create a more accurate and, possibly, more vivid picture of what the Caribbean was like in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are, indeed, archives like the ones Thomas described, ones that sought to restore humanity to ex-slaves or to reconceptualize the Caribbean family as not deviant, but simply different and dependent on the intersection of history, culture, and various politics. But some, like this photo archive, have more subtle agendas, simply presenting a small square of the reality that has passed, ripe and ready to help not only teach about the past, but help to inform the future.

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