Returning Footage to the Himalayas

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Returning Footage
  to the Himalayas
                         Over the New Year, two members of the Digital Himalaya project team travelled
                         to remote parts of Nepal and on to Gangtok, the capital of the state of Sikkim in
                         north-east India, to return footage shot between the 1930s and 1960s. Mark Turin
                         and Sara Shneiderman describe and document the process.
                     ‘It’s as if our life span has been doubled’    the system, creating a dynamic tool for           parts of Burma, principally collected by
                     said Rinchen Lhamo, a 65-year old              comparative research.                             five different anthropologists and
                     grandmother from the village of Lubra,                                                           travellers. These materials were com-
                     Mustang district, Nepal, after she             Collections                                       piled as an analogue videodisc in the
                     watched digitised 16mm footage of her          The five collections involved in the first        1980s, and included some 10,000
                     mother in 1962 on a portable DVD               phase of the project make use of a wide           photographs, a large number of film and
                     player. ‘How could I ever expect to see        range of original recording media and             sound clips, and original fieldwork
                     her face again?’ she continued, echoing        were chosen for their historical value            diaries and notes in an associated
                     the delight and surprise of many               and their coverage of diverse geo-                database. The videodisc is now prac-
                     villagers as they viewed this historic         graphical areas and ethnic peoples of the         tically obsolete, and we hope to re-
                     footage of their region and relatives for      Himalayan region:                                 release it in a digital format.
                     the very first time. This event was the                                                          4. Thak Archive: materials from a
                     initiative of Digital Himalaya, a pilot        1. Williamson Photographic Archive:               study of the Gurung village of Thak,
                     project to develop digital collection,         1,700 photographs taken between 1930              central Nepal, including over 100 hours
                     archiving, and distribution strategies for     and 1935 by the British Political Officer         of film, more than 3,000 photographs,
                     multimedia anthropological informa-            Frederick Williamson in Tibet, Sikkim             and continuous censuses and fieldnotes
                     tion from the Himalayan region.                and Bhutan. Williamson’s collection is            covering the period 1968 to the present,
                                                                    now held in the Museum of Archae-                 collected by Alan Macfarlane and Sarah
                                                                    ology and Anthropology at the Univer-             Harrison.
                                                                    sity of Cambridge, and includes a                 5. Thangmi Archive: digital video,
                                                                    number of rare historic images.                   photographs and ethnographic data
                                                                    2. Fürer-Haimendorf Film Collec-                  from the Thangmi communities of
                                                                    tion: over 100 hours of 16mm film from            Dolakha and Sindhupalcok districts in
                                                                    various parts of the central and eastern          north-east Nepal collected by Mark
                                                                    Himalayas filmed between 1936 and                 Turin and Sara Shneiderman from 1996
  Digital Himalaya




                                                                    1980 by Christoph von Fürer-Haimen-               to the present.
                                                                    dorf, Professor of Anthropology at                   Of the above five collections, three
                                                                    SOAS. The films are supplemented by               are finite, historical resources, while the
                                                                    Haimendorf’s detailed field diaries.              latter two are collections that continue
                     A still from the 1962 cine reel taken by
                     Professor Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf       3. Naga Videodisc: part of Haimen-                to grow. Depending on the success of
                     showing local women dancing in their finery.   dorf’s film archive overlaps with a large         this initial phase, the project may
                                                                    ethnographic collection relating to the           expand to include other high quality
                        Based at the University of Cam-             Naga peoples of north-eastern India and           archives.
                     bridge, the project began in December
                     2000. The initial phase involves digi-
                     tising a set of existing ethnographic
                     archives comprised of photographs,
                     films, sound recordings, fieldnotes, and
                     texts collected by anthropologists and
                     travellers in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and
                     the Indian Himalayas from the begin-
                     ning of the 20th century to the present.
                     The project has three long-term
                     objectives: (a) to preserve in a digital
                     medium valuable ethnographic mater-
                     ials that are degenerating in their current
                     forms; (b) to make these resources
                     available in a searchable digital format
                     to scholars and the Himalayan com-
                     munities from which the materials were
                                                                                                                                                                    Sienna Craig




                     collected; and (c) to develop a template
                     for collaborative digital cataloguing that
                     will allow users to contribute documen-
                     tation to existing collections and             Sara Shneiderman introducing the Digital Himalaya project to the villagers of Lubra,
                     eventually link their own collections to       December 2002.

                                                                                                              British Universities Film & Video Council
                                         10      No 50, March 2003                                                                     www.bufvc.ac.uk
                                                                                                          Feature
                                                                                                                                         choosing the format which will afford
                                                                                                                                         the widest range of people the most
                                                                                                                                         efficient and inexpensive access to these
                                                                                                                                         resources over time is not a simple
                                                                                                                                         proposition. We must consider the needs
                                                                                                                                         and priorities of each target audience,
                                                                                                                                         and create a flexible and adaptable
                                                                                                                                         system with multiple layers and entry
                                                                                                                                         points. If more than a few token
                                                                                                                                         members of the Himalayan communi-
                                                                                                                                         ties from which the material originated
                                                                                                                                         are to have access to this visual docu-
                                                                                                                                         mentation of their history, the multiple
                                                                                                                                         obstacles of illiteracy, unwritten lan-
                                                                                                                                         guages and poor technical infrastructure
                                                                                                                                         must be overcome. At the same time, in
                                                                                                                                         order for researchers to find the archive
                                                                                                                                         useful as a comparative resource,
                                                                                                                                         effective search and retrieval tech-
Sara Shneiderman




                                                                                                                                         niques, detailed documentation and
                                                                                                                                         high resolution images must be incor-
                                                                                                                                         porated. The challenge here is not so
                                                                                                                                         much in bridging the gap between Asia
                                                                                                                                         and Europe, but rather that between
                   From left, Mr. Khendzong Yapla and his mother recognise relatives from the Williamson collection                      educated, English-speaking computer
                   dating back to the 1930s.                                                                                             users in urban centres like Kathmandu,
                                                                                                                                         Delhi or London, and their rural
                   Technologies and Methodologies                    computer, is an option which bypasses                               counterparts, who often do not have the
                   Each of the three aspects of the project          some of the pitfalls outlined above. An                             education or facilities to make use of
                   requires a different set of technologies.         archive in DVD format would provide                                 new technologies. Bridging this divide
                   Digitisation is naturally the first step:         access to non-literate and less advanced                            has been a central problem for ethno-
                   scanning photographic prints, nega-               users by offering limited interactivity                             graphic studies published in other
                   tives, and slides, creating digital master        together with high quality playable                                 mediums: books published in English
                   copies of film and video through                  content making use of voiceovers in                                 have remained inaccessible to the non-
                   telecine transfer and other analogue-to-          local languages. With the advent of                                 English speaking communities which
                   digital conversion processes, and                 small battery-operated DVD-Video                                    they describe. Digital technologies
                   storing these masters in high resolution          players, it is possible to play DVDs in                             provide unprecedented capabilities for
                   digital formats. The second step is data          areas with no infrastructure or elec-                               transporting and displaying large
                   management and interface design, to               tricity supply. Local groups could attend                           amounts of visual ethnographic
                   which we will return shortly. The third           demonstrations to watch film footage                                material. Only by dismantling the
                   step concerns questions of storage and            and listen to voiceovers on a battery-                              existing ‘digital divide’ can new
                   distribution: should all of the materials         operated DVD player. The widespread                                 technologies surmount the communi-
                   be available over the internet? Should            distribution of single DVDs is limited,                             cation barriers which often frustrate the
                   we use DVD? How will different users              however, and in addition, the pace of                               ethnographic endeavour.
                   respond to each format? Furthermore,              technological development suggests
                   we must think ahead to ensure that the            that in its current form, DVD has a                                 Consent and Confidentiality
                   digital format in which we archive films          limited life-span, making it a risky                                Whether online or on DVD, issues of
                   and photographs can be easily migrated            choice as a long-term archival medium.                              confidentiality and consent remain
                   to new platforms as technologies                     Technology is now developing and                                 central to the construction of an archive
                   develop, and thus avoid the problems of           changing at an unprecedented rate, and                              such as ours. While copyright clearance
                   obsolescence that have plagued prev-                                                                                  has been received for the materials in the
                   ious ethnographic archiving projects                                                                                  initial collections, privacy and protec-
                   such as the Naga Videodisc.                                                                                           tion for the individuals appearing in the
                      Broadband internet offers ways of                                                                                  photographs and films are of serious
                   making archives available to a geog-                                                                                  concern. The potential problems are
                   raphically diverse audience. In large                                                                                 heightened by the immediacy and lack
                   parts of the West, however, and certainly                                                                             of anonymity inherent in visual
                   in the Himalayan region, the bandwidth                                                                                representation, and the fact that many of
                   necessary to transfer large digital files                                                                             the images originated in generations
                   with comfort is still unavailable. Even if                                                                            past when mass distribution of visual
                   the appropriate hardware and software                                                                                 information was inconceivable. Al-
                   were soon put in place, many of those                                                                                 though anthropologists may have been
                   who might like to view images of their                                                                                certain that the people they filmed or
                   own communities are not literate in                                                                                   photographed consented to these
                   English or familiar with the basic                                                                                    activities at the time, the advent of the
                   computing concepts needed to search                                                                                   digital age threatens previous under-
                   an online database. While Digital                                                                                     standings of ‘informed consent’. When
                                                                                                                      Sara Shneiderman




                   Himalaya continues to investigate the                                                                                 Fürer-Haimendorf first travelled to
                   use of Unicode fonts for Nepali and                                                                                   Nepal in the 1950’s, the country had just
                   Tibetan, constructing a multilingual                                                                                  opened to the outside world. How could
                   search tool remains a challenge.                                                                                      his informants consent to having their
                      A DVD-based archive, functioning as                                                                                images broadcast over the internet fifty
                   a self-contained portable resource               A young Thangmi shaman performing in his first                       years later? How could they have
                   requiring neither internet access nor a          village festival, May 2000.                                          anticipated that the words they uttered
                   British Universities Film & Video Council
                   www.bufvc.ac.uk                                                                             No 50, March 2003                            11
Feature
                                                                                                         indigenous sum-       and update supporting information on
                                                                                                         mary of the           his collection. Thanks to the almost
                                                                                                         power of a mov-       photographic memory of certain
                                                                                                         ing image.            Sikkimese residents and the encyclo-
                                                                                                             As the after-     paedic knowledge of Mr Khendzong
                                                                                                         noon wore on,         Yapla, Secretary to the Government
                                                                                                         we watched the        of Sikkim, we were able to fill a
                                                                                                         five-minute film      number of the gaps. During our short
                                                                                                         clip again and        stay we advised on the digitisation
  Frederick Williamson Archive




                                                                                                         again. Each time,     and preservation of the royal photo
                                                                                                         we paused on          archives now held by a registered trust
                                                                                                         different sections,   in Gangtok. On departure, we left
                                                                                                         and the villagers     behind a number of copies of the DVDs
                                                                                                         debated the iden-     and CDs we had shown with interested
                                                                                                         tity of each indi-    parties on the understanding that
                                                                                                         vidual. Many          viewing copies would be circulated. As
                                 Booksellers by the Chö-khang, Lhasa, Tibet, August 1933.                people could lo-      generations of archivists have attested,
                                                                                                         cate an aunt or an    the surest way of stimulating use is
                                 (gossip about their neighbours or per-          uncle, and a few older villagers even         by distributing as many copies of
                                 haps criticism of the monarchy) might           recognized their own parents. Small           the material to as many people as
                                 be available to millions of faceless            children were called in to ‘meet’ the         possible.
                                 viewers around the world? While many            grandparents they had never known. It            Despite the excitement shown at
                                 of the individuals who appear in                also became clear that several of the         both events, people remain wary of
                                 Haimendorf’s films have now passed              early scenes in the film were not actually    their images being used for adverse
                                 away, what will happen when their               from Lubra, but from the neighbouring         purpose, and they are right to be
                                 descendants view the digital archive and        district of Dolpo. Apparently Haimen-         concerned. How can any of us know
                                 come across images of their grand-              dorf had spliced these scenes together        how these images will be manipulated
                                 parents taking part in some politically         without making a note of their different      over the next hundred years? Old
                                 compromising activity or making                 sources. In addition, the four villagers      film doesn’t die, it just gets clipped into
                                 statements still embarrassing to the            who could actually recall the anthro-         ever smaller pieces, further removed
                                 family today? At the risk of precipi-           pologist’s visit all concurred that the       from its original context, and used for
                                 tating an anthropological catastrophe,          women’s dance early in the film was not       ever-more egregious purposes. For
                                 the Digital Himalaya team set out to            in fact a natural part of the wedding         example, what of the image of a bare-
                                 return digitised photos and DVDs to             ritual, but rather a feat of anthropo-        breasted Masai woman placed on the
                                 communities in Nepal and India in               logical engineering-Haimendorf had            web as part of an ethnographic archive,
                                 December 2002 and January 2003.                 asked all of the village women to put on      and later spotted on a pornography -
                                    Footage from Mustang, Nepal,                 their finest clothes and dance so that he     site? Although we cannot guarantee
                                 from 1962                                       could film them. During the three day         against such misuse, our hope is that by
                                    On Christmas Day, 2002, we arrived           visit, we showed the short film over 40       engaging community members in the
                                 in the village of Lubra, an ethnically          times, but there were still requests for      project from the early stages we will
                                 Tibetan village located in a remote side        more. Since the village is not electrified,   be able to pre-empt problems as they
                                 canyon of the Mustang valley, carrying          it made no sense to leave the DVD             arise.
                                 a DVD of digitised 16mm footage from            player behind, but we departed with
                                 40 years earlier. This was a village we         the promise that we would look into           Future Directions
                                 had worked in previously, building up           ways of establishing a local viewing          All of these considerations will shape
                                 relationships of trust and understanding,       station.                                      the way Digital Himalaya develops over
                                 which all facilitated the process we were                                                     the coming years. Salvaging ethno-
                                 there to initiate. It was decided that the      Footage from Sikkim, India, from              graphic films and photographs by
                                 local gompa (Buddhist temple) would             the 1930s                                     assuring that they are properly digitised,
                                 serve as the most suitable location for a       In January 2003, we travelled to              catalogued, and kept in context is a
                                 public viewing of the film. The whole           Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, to meet       priority. Involving indigenous commu-
                                 village turned out for the event, and           with a number of local dignitaries and        nities in the process of documentation is
                                 crowded around the small portable               researchers from the Namgyal Institute        another. If we can accomplish even
                                 screen. We decided to provide no                of Tibetology. We brought with us             these objectives, we will be on the way
                                 additional contextual information about         digitised photos and 16mm films dating        to creating an appropriate ethnographic
                                 the silent footage, hoping instead to           back to the 1930s, taken by Frederick         archive for the digital age. We need to
                                 elicit viewer’s comments about its              Williamson, a British colonial officer        construct an open, non-linear archival
                                 content and form. The first viewing was         stationed in Sikkim during the Raj.           structure that offers a range of access
                                 greeted with complete silence: no-one           Unlike Haimendorf’s anthropological           points and different paths through the
                                 pointed, spoke or expressed any                 footage of Nepal, which focussed on           visually-rich materials. We hope that
                                 emotion. At the end of the five-minute          ordinary people and their lives,              Digital Himalaya will be a dyna-
                                 film clip, there were requests to view it       Williamson was more of a high society         mic ethnographic archive that accu-
                                 again. After the initial disorientation of      photographer. His fascinating and             rately remembers the past and is a
                                 seeing moving film of the village for the       unique collection houses images, some         culturally responsive resource for the
                                 first time, it began to fall into place for     black and white stills, others cine film,     future.
                                 the villagers, and the race was on to           of many influential figures in the region
                                 identify each individual appearing in the       during the 1930s including the royal          Mark Turin and
                                 film. We asked whether the film                 families of Sikkim and Bhutan, and the        Sara Shneiderman
                                 contravened the taboo on displaying             rarely photographed 13th Dalai Lama of        Digital Himalaya Project
                                 images of the deceased. ‘Not at all,’ a         Tibet. The weakness of the Williamson         info@digitalhimalaya.com
                                 village elder replied, ‘this is different       collection was the paucity of his
                                 from a photograph, which only reminds           descriptive captions – early ‘metadata’       films, photos and more information are
                                 us of death. Here the people are alive,         – and in the process of showing and           available on:
                                 so there is no problem’. An interesting         sharing the footage we hoped to refine        www.digitalhimalaya.com
                                                                                                                        British Universities Film & Video Council
                                                    12      No 50, March 2003                                                                    www.bufvc.ac.uk

				
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