Professor Candace Keller Receives NEH Grant

Negatives from Malian photographer Abdourahmane Sakaly's collection being processed.

Hoping to preserve cultural heritage and change Western thought on Africa, a Michigan State University researcher will use a $300,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to digitize 100,000 original black-and-white negatives of Mali’s most important photographers, dating from the 1940s.

Candace Keller, assistant professor of African art history and visual culture, is collaborating with MSU’s MATRIX: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences and the Maison Africaine de la Photographie in Bamako, Mali, to create the Archive of Malian Photography.

portrait of a woman with long, blonde hair and rectangular glasses
Candace Keller, assistant professor of African art history and visual culture. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Once complete, the publicly accessible, free database will provide valuable documentation of the modernization of Western Africa, featuring family portraits and photos of military activities, diplomatic visits, political events, national monuments, architecture, cultural and religious ceremonies and other aspects of popular culture, she said.

“These photos have the potential to shape the way photographic history and cultural practice in West Africa are taught and studied since the concepts displayed go beyond what we’re used to seeing: village-based lifestyles,” said Keller, who has joint appointments in the College of Arts and Letters and the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

Until now, access to the four Malian photographers’ private archives has been limited, so current online archives feature photos taken in Africa by Western photographers, not by African photographers. That’s an important distinction because photographs taken by African photographers for African consumers convey symbolism that’s culturally unique, Keller said.

By digitizing, cleaning and rehousing the negatives, Keller and her team hope to protect them from further climatic damage caused by flooding, extreme temperatures, dust and poor storage conditions. In addition, providing access to only low-resolution photos renders them unusable in print – yet still accessible for research and scholarship – thereby protecting photos from further exploitation on the global market.

The project is a huge undertaking, but students are helping. Graduate students in Mali and French majors at MSU are helping with translation. In addition, the team is working with the U.S. Embassy in Bamako on shipping challenges.

group of people smiling for a picture in front of a wall
Archive of Malian Photography conservation team in Bamako, Mali.

Keller hopes the project is sustainable and empowering to the families of the photographers – whose proprietary rights will be better protected, thanks to the project.

“By having a global perspective, a more nuanced understanding of the world, the policy decisions people make can be more effective and mutually beneficial,” she said. “I’m proud that with this project, the potential for a positive impact on the future is significant.”

Keller’s current two-year project is the second phase of the Archive of Malian Photography project. She and her team have already digitized 28,000 Malian photos using a grant from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme.