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NEH supports USC project in historical photography

Missionary Rudolf Fisch shot this photograph, part of the International Mission Photography Archive, in early 20th-century Ghana. (Photo/Courtesy of the Basel Mission Image Archive)

Since 2002, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the USC Libraries have partnered with archives around the world to digitize more than 82,000 historical photographs by Christian missionaries and make them publicly available through the USC Digital Library.

Two new grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) totaling $305,000 now will allow USC and partner archives to add an additional 20,000 images to the International Mission Photography Archive (IMPA) database.

NEH funding also will support development of video essays that bring IMPA collections together with scholarly analysis and digital storytelling methods. USC sociology professor Jon Miller, senior research associate at the Center for Religion & Civic Culture, housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Matt Gainer, director of the USC Digital Library, are the principal investigators.

Taken by Christian missionaries around the world between the 1850s and World War II, the images record early contact between missionaries from Europe and North America and native populations across Africa, India, East Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean.

The missionaries usually took the photos to document their work for congregations back home. But in many cases they also provided the only visual record of the places and cultures the missionaries encountered, according to Miller, who directs the IMPA project.

“That record is of obvious interest for scholars of religion, but it is also important for those looking for the historical traces of economic, cultural, political and technological change,” Miller said. “When diverse and geographically dispersed collections are accumulated electronically and made freely available online as the IMPA has done, they can support comparative research that draws on many different collections to explore different cultures, regions, time periods and religious traditions.”

The international collaboration — which includes such institutions as the Day Missions Library of the Yale University Divinity School, the National Library of Scotland, the Basel Mission in Switzerland and the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America — supports scholarly investigation in anthropology, art history, comparative sociology, post-colonial studies and many other disciplines. It also welcomes new voices to join the conversation and enrich the context around the photos.

“Online presentation of these pictures is the most effective way to make them available to the people who now live in the places where they were taken, so they can experience them and participate in the conversation about what the photographs reveal,” Miller explained.

The NEH awarded two grants to USC for the project. The larger of the two, for $280,000, enables the partner archives already contributing to the IMPA to continue their work of digitizing and cataloging photographs. It also brings two new partners into the fold: the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at Edinburgh University in Scotland and the Brown Library of Abilene Christian University in Texas.

A smaller digital humanities start-up grant of $25,000 will bring scholars and digital storytellers together to explore new and innovative uses of the IMPA collections. The goal is to create a series of visual essays in which scholars interact with the images captured by missionaries’ lenses.

In a prototype titled “Reading an Image from the Other Context” (available at, viewers follow along as historian Paul Jenkins reveals the hidden messages encoded in a photo from the Basel Mission Pictures Archive of an African pastor and his family. Illustrating his points with other photos from the collections, Jenkins explains the significance of the subjects’ clothing and their position relative to each other in the context of early-20th century Ghana.

The photo, Jenkins noted in the video, “offer[s] us, with a Western background, the experience of changing our point of view from a Western to an indigenous mode.”

This summer, Gainer and Miller will lead a workshop to identify the relevant digital tools and create a template for the series. Once completed, the visual essays will be publicly available through the USC Digital Library for use by other scholars or in the classroom.

The visual essays will “showcase one of the ways a digital library is particularly well-suited to support the community at USC and the scholarly community in general,” Gainer said. “We plan to develop a toolset that will enable scholars to work with digital library content in ways that better support what they do in the classroom and in their research.”

The IMPA previously received funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Getty Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Scholarly Communications program.

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