Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Digital Public History Narratives with Photographs

This post is a slightly different version of  Digital Public History narratives with Photographs. In: Public History Weekly 3 (2015) 31, DOI: (German and French versions also available in PHW).

Social Media are “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”[1] They facilitate various forms of web communication between individuals and communities. They can bring users together to discuss common issues and to share traces of the past. Local communities’ engagement with the past, mediated or not, are made possible through Web 2.0 practices. New virtual contacts could be built when communities are no longer present in physical spaces.[2]

Everybody’s got talent: user-generated knowledge

If social media allow dispersed communities to reconnect online and share their memories, today, understanding how common people use social media and play with history tells us many things about which pasts are important in our present.[3]
Everybody promotes her/himself. TV “reality shows” such as Got Talent[4] are the most followed TV broadcasts worldwide because they select unknown people and connect them with an audience. These shows reveal unexpressed skills and creative capacities the same way online social media websites crowd-source knowledge and reconnect with the past. Like TV talent shows, social media allow different publics to promote themselves, their family history, and their communities.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defined the systematic repetition of similar family photographs as emblematic of popular behaviour and culture.[5] Sharing different generations’ family pictures in social media shapes collective memories.[6] On the other hand, such popular demand for genealogy[7] only scratches the surface of major events in history and is often disconnected from “big history” and broader contexts. But photography, in social media, describes popular behaviours – “selfies” today – [8] and, thanks to linked data technologies, Google Maps, and Street View, adds spatial dimensions and time boundaries to individual memories.

Pinning your images with Historypin, a digital time machine

“Historypin is a digital time machine that creates a new way for the world to see and share history.”[9] Linked data and the Semantic Web connect digital contents, combining primary sources with geography.[10] Old pictures can be “pinned” in the present: family pasts may be re-enacted today. Heritage institutions, but also common people, organize forms of storytelling because the technology is easy. Public historians takeHistorypin seriously to engage with specific communities.[11] Using Historypin, the American National Archives is now everywhere outside the building in the virtual space[12] and solicits everybody’s contribution to historical archives, inviting the wider public to “pin your history to the world.”[13] In Florence, during a public exhibition (2014) commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the German occupation,[14] citizens brought their documents on site, using the MemorySharing project. Old 1944 documents were scanned and included in today’s maps of Florence. New Zealand soldiers are now re-enacted directly on Google Street View.[15] You can fade the vintage picture[16] to see the contemporary layer of the street.
Could academic historians use the potential of digital public history, with Historypin, a tool that makes it easy to re-enact even difficult pasts? Alon Confino tried to reconstruct the pre-1948 invisible Palestinian past of Tantura, Dor in today’s Israel. Confino studied cadastral maps, aerial photography, and images of Palestinians recorded prior to May 22–23, 1948. But user-generated content from social media would add original Palestinian diaspora documents: re-enacting 1948 Palestinian memories should be possible.[17]

Visual narrative public history

Inspired by a photograph, Michael Hughes’ Flickr project “Souvenirs”,[18] Looking into the Past merges past and present in a unique image.[19] “Ghosting family pasts”, thanks to digital technologies, is very popular for resuscitating memories. Merging old pictures and recent images shortens the digital timeline and activates different regimes of historicity in the present.[20]
Emblematic of many others projects around the world, the Past Present Project in Tumblr[21] publishes family pictures where past and present overlap.[22] Images showing the pastness of places shape a nostalgic present, such as the merged urban temporalities of the Hungarian artist Zoltán Kerényi,[23] or Hebe Robinson’s Northern Norway Echoes, a project placing old family photos from a Lofoten fishing village, abandoned after WW2, in today’s landscape.[24] Sometimes called rephotography,[25] these new images contain different time layers in one unique image. Even WW1 images are “ghosted” in a past-present continuum.[26] The same is done with WW2 images by the Russian photographer Sergey Larenkov in Link to the Past.[27] The author of a website about Krakow “looks for very old photos of the city and takes new ones from the very same spot, so my readers can compare and see what has changed”.[28] Keith Jones, inLiverpool then and now,[29] lets us discover “blended shots”: old black and white images merged with colour images.[30]

Past-present relationships in photographs

The Italian photographer, Isabella Balena, took pictures of the Gothic Line ruins that stopped the allied offensive in 1944 in central Italy sixty years after the event. Ci resta il nome, a photographic journey through the memory of WW2 in Italy is a good example of visual narrative public history.[31] What is important in Balena’s systematic reproduction of monuments and traces of the violent past is to show how the place where Mussolini was shot in April 1945 tells about both presentism and oblivion and is open to the present and new futures.
But photography may also show that the present has lost its connection with the past. Total disconnection with history is what Serge Gruzinski demonstrates with the cover picture of his book, L’Histoire pour quoi faire?:[32] young, post-colonial Algerians playing soccer. Their goalkeeper stands in front of an ancient Roman arch, a symbol of lost memories. The arch does not mean anything to them. Instead, in the context of today’s Isis campaigns, the Islamic State extremists destroy past heritages, so that history could be rewritten and memory cancelled forever.[33]
  • François Hartog: Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps., Paris: Seuil, 2003 (Regimes of historicity: presentism and experiences of time, translated by Saskia Brown, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
  • Serge Gruzinski: L’Histoire pour quoi faire?, Paris: Fayard, 2012.
  • Serge Noiret: “Nulla sarà più come prima: considerazioni sul Digital Turn e le fonti fotografiche dal punto di vista della storiografia.” in Gian Piero Brunetta and Carlo Alberto Zotti Minici (eds.): La fotografia come fonte di storia, atti del convegno (Venezia, 4-6 ottobre 2012), Venezia, Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 2014, pp.248-268.
External links
[1] Andreas M. Kaplan, and Michael Haenlein, “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media”, in Business Horizons, 53/1, 2010 pp. 59-68.
[2] Dario Miccoli studies how the Jewish diaspora from the Maghreb is today “reconnected” through the web and social media. See “Digital museums: narrating and preserving the history of Egyptian Jews on the Internet”, in E. Trevisan Semi, D. Miccoli and T. Parfitt (eds.), Memory and Ethnicity. Ethnic Museums in Israel and the Diaspora, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2013, pp.195-222; “Les Juifs du Maroc, Internet et la construction d’une diaspora numérique”, in Expressions Maghrébines, 13/1, 2014, pp.75-94.
[3] André Gunthert: “Shared Images”, in Études photographiques, 24, novembre 2009, (Last accessed 5.10.2015); “L’image conversationnelle”, in Études photographiques, 31, 2014, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[4] A list of countries offering, after the USA in 2006 and GB in 2007, an emulation of Got Talent is available in Wikipedia,; America’s Got Talent (2006),; La France a un incroyable talent (2006),; Britain’s got talent; general information in Wikipedia, (All last accessed 5.10.2015).
[5] Pierre Bourdieu, Luc Boltanski, Roger Castel and Philippe de Vendeuvre: Photography, a Middle-Brow Art, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
[6] Richard Chalfen, “La photo de famille et ses usages communicationnels”, Études photographiques, n. 32, 2015, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[7] Jerome De Groote: “International Federation for Public History Plenary Address: On Genealogy”, in The Public Historian, Vol. 37, No. 3, August 2015, pp. 102-127, DOI: 10.1525/tph.2015.37.3.102 (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[8] André Gunthert: “The consecration of the selfie”, in Études photographiques, 32, 2015, (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[9] Historypin in Wikipedia, (Last accessed 5.10.2015); see also Hunter Skipworth: Historypin turns Google Street View into a window on the past, June 21, 2010, The Telegraph, (Last accessed 5.10.2015); Beat Brüsch: “L’histoire en noir et blanc”, in: Mots d’Image,
[10] “A global community collaborating around history […]”, (Last accessed 5.10.2015). Historypin was created by the non-profit company Shift with support from Google and launched at the Museum of the City of New York in July 2011. “Enabling networks of people to share and explore local history, make new connections and reduce social isolation” was the goal of the company. See Historypin, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[11] Meg Foster: “Online and Plugged In? Public History and Historians in the Digital Age”, in Public History Review, Vol.21, 2014, pp. 1-19, (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[12] Kris Jarosik: “Primary Sources With Some Help from Historypin”, in The National Archives Education Updates, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[13] NARA, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[14] (Last accessed 5.10.2015); Filippo Macelloni and Lorenzo Garzella: MemorySharing a Firenze, (Last accessed 5.10.2015). Francesco Cavarocchi and Valeria Galimi: Firenze in Guerra, 1940-1944, Florence: Firenze University Press, 2014, pp. XXIV-XXV.
[15] The historic centre of Florence on a Google map is now available with new, embedded documents from 1944. This is the direct link with geographical coordinates:!/geo:43.789874,11.271481/zoom:13/date_from:1944-01-01/date_to:1944-12-31/ (Last accessed 5.20.2015).
[16] Kaye, George Frederick, 1914-2004. Looking towards the Porta Romana in southern Florence, Italy, in World War II, (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[17] Alon Confino : “Miracles and Snow in Palestine and Israel: Tantura, a History of 1948.”, in Israel Studies, vol. 17, n. 2, 2012, pp. 25-61, (photos are published on pages 44-55).
[18] (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[19] Ghosting the Past is the title of a picture showing two generations of the same family pausing on Capitol Hill. Like their grandparents, the next generation visited the same “realm of American memory”. (Looking into the Past (Last accessed 5.10.2015)).
[20] François Hartog: Regimes of historicity: presentism and experiences of time (translated by Saskia Brown), New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
[21] Christian Carollo’s Past Present Project in Tumblr,; The Past Present Project in Instagram,; The Past Present Project in Facebook (All last accessed 5.10.2015).
[22] “I wondered,” said the photographer Christian Carollo, “what if I could replicate my grandfather’s photograph 30 years later?” (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[23] 25 photos du passé se superposent avec le présent pour vous faire découvrir leurs histoires (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[24] Hebe Robinson: Echoes, (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[25] Loïc Haÿ: Quand la rephotographie rencontre le numérique, (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[26] Pictured: Fascinating World War One photographs mixed with today’s modern landscapes, April 22, 2014, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[27]Sergey Larenkov: Связь времен / Link to the Past, URL:
[28] Photos are divided; the old black and white image abuts the new one in full colour. The viewer may cancel parts – or the entirety – of one of the two combined images. (Kuba: Dawno temu w Krakowie, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[29] Keith Jones: Liverpool Then and Now, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[30] Liverpool Then and Now, (Last accessed 5.10.2015)
[31] Isabella Balena: Ci resta il nome., Milano: Mazzotta, 2004 and!/about (Last accessed 5.10.2015).
[32] Serge Gruzinski: L’Histoire pour quoi faire?, Paris: Fayard, 2012, pp.21-24.
[33] Isis Video Claims Attack On Unesco Iraq World Heritage Site, (Last accessed 5.10.2015).