Making open access photos of ancient cultural heritage available via Flickr: a few thoughts by Dan Diffendale
Daniel P. Diffendale is a Mediterranean archaeologist whose interests lie primarily in the first millennium BCE central Mediterranean. His current primary research focus is the use of volcanic building stone in the architecture of the city of Rome in antiquity. Since April 2007, he has shared his photographs in open access via Flickr. His over 10 000 photos are now widely used by scholars, either for their courses or for their publications. Klinai asked him to present his approach and his motivations.
Let me start by addressing audience. Who are my photos for? Everyone, really, I hope. I hear from educators at various levels, especially university instructors, that they’ve used my photos in class, which is always lovely to hear, and I’ve had requests for use in books and articles. But I hope that they are also accessible to students directly, as well as to a wider public that has at least a baseline understanding of Mediterranean antiquity. One of my goals in making my photographs available is to expand the range of what’s accessible online. I’m not sure many people, even a lot of specialists in various part of antiquity, fully understand just how incredibly much ancient material culture is preserved. Even if what is preserved amounts to, at best guess, perhaps 1% of what once existed, it’s still a vast amount of material. And I’m trying, not always successfully, to allow people to access more of that variety—things like organic materials, cookpots, the “imperfect” or the just plain weird—and to see things that don’t make it to the textbooks or the popular retweet factories.
Why Flickr? Well, I joined Flickr way back in 2007, but that was not my first attempt at sharing photos of antiquities. I think it was some time around 1998 when I added a section to my Geocities site to host photos of Roman sites and artifacts in Britain, taken during a family vacation there. My cataloging impulse goes way back; when I was a kid my dad used to take me to photograph trains in the next town over, and I’ve got boxes full of train slides that I suppose I could scan someday. (This is a good place to thank my dad for giving me my first hand-me-down cameras, a 110 film camera—I think a Vivitar—and then a 35mm Pentax, and for teaching me the rudiments of light and composition).
My next website after Geocities, “Italica” (http://web-facstaff.sas.upenn.edu/~dpd/italica/index.html), from my days at Penn, is somehow still online, and you can see the tag I came up with: “ancient Italy before, besides and beneath Rome,” as well as a short list of Italian sites and museums along the left. Clicking on one of these reveals a familiar layout, photos with captions, that would follow me over to Flickr. In fact, my Italica page notes that it was “Last updated May 2, 2007”—I joined Flickr in April 2007. Why Flickr? I don’t remember exactly, but I suppose it allowed me to do what I was already doing, but more easily, and with more options for tagging and organizing. Both Flickr and Wikimedia Commons were launched in 2004, but I don’t think Commons offered the sort of organization that I was looking for. And you can see from my earliest uploaded photos on Flickr that I was starting a sort of haphazard catalog of Roman inscriptions and spolia, joined fairly quickly by museum photos and the occasional landscape or personal photo. (Mostly I can’t stand to look at my early photos on Flickr, as their quality is pretty low, but I guess in a lot of cases there aren’t yet any alternatives available elsewhere, and they’re good as a personal archive.)
Over the years, I’ve continued uploading photos from places I’ve lived, worked, and studied, especially in Greece and Italy, but also elsewhere, including museums in the US. To be honest, my archive of photos has kind of swamped me. I’ve got about 10,000 photos uploaded to Flickr. And I’ve just looked at the totals, which I usually avoid because it’s overwhelming; if you can believe it, I’ve got about a quarter of a million photos dating from 2003 to 2021. Now, not all of those are related to antiquity, but the vast majority are; of course, some of those will be photos of labels in museums, and many, especially the earlier ones, are just not of sufficient quality to upload. Even so, I’ve probably got 100,000 more photos that I could upload some day. I’m trying to develop a better habit around this, to upload a few every day. Of course, it takes time to edit, but the real time is taken in captioning and tagging each photo; beyond my own archaeological training, museum labels are the primary resource here, especially when I don’t know very much about the subject, but of course labels are not always reliable (or existent!), or identifications might be disputed, interpretations might have changed, so sometimes I’m spending time doing a bit of extra research.
It’s important to me that every photo has at least a minimum level of textual description. There are so many photos out there of, say, fascinating artifacts in museums I’ve never visited, but there’s no caption and so it’s almost as good as useless. For archaeology, as we know, context is key. I also try to tag each photo as liberally as possible, relating to geography, object type, material, chronology, subject, that sort of thing. One limitation of Flickr is a cap of 75 tags per photo, and I often hit this limit, especially since I try to provide some of the more basic tags in multiple major world languages. (One tag, if relevant, will always be a Pleiades machine tag [https://code.flickr.net/2011/]. Being able to plug into the decentralized ancient world linked data network directly is another attraction of using Flickr.)
One of the things I like best is tagging chronological periods. Obviously this depends a great deal on the nature of the artifact, with Classical Athenian painted pottery the most fine-grained, but you can use my tags to click through the centuries quarter by quarter, and get a synchronic slice of the sorts of things that people were creating or building across the ancient Mediterranean. This is still pretty limited, but it should be useful in about a decade or so!
This all adds up to a lot of time, even for “just” 10,000 photos. Sometimes I daydream about a postdoc or something that would pay for me to edit and upload full time, but even this daydreaming gets tricky. Museums often prohibit the taking of photos for profit, which is reasonable (Also, I have non-photographic research interests that I want to pursue!) I know the monetization of material heritage is a tricky topic, but usually it’s the museums themselves that need whatever money they can generate (and I’m thinking here primarily of archaeological museums in the Mediterranean, rather than well-endowed major American art museums). I’m not independently wealthy and still need to eat, though, so editing and uploading photos has to fit around whatever remunerative work I’m able to find.
I license my photos with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license. (There’s a newer CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license, but Flickr hasn’t updated their options in years.) Why not a Commercial license, which would allow my photos to be used on Wikipedia? Well, the non-commercial designation is important to me for a couple of reasons. First, as already noted, museums will often prohibit the taking of photos for commercial purposes, and I want to respect that. There’s a potential for antagonistic relationships between photographer and museum that I want to avoid; we’re all on the side of supporting cultural heritage in our own ways. I’m also an archaeologist who has worked in museums; these are potentially colleagues and friends we’re talking about. I’m also not making any money off my photos, and I don’t think anyone else should, either (at most I sometimes get a free copy of a book to which I have contributed a photo or two). On the other hand, I will usually make an exception if someone asks to use a particular one of my photos on Wikipedia; I don’t think the occasional Commercial license will do much harm. Licensing NoCommercial also allows me to assess requests for use in books and articles on a case-by-case basis. I almost always say yes, and only ask for a copy of whatever it is as recompense; I have only turned down requests to use one of my photos a couple of times, once when it would have graced the cover of a book of pseudoarchaeology.
I license with Attribution because it’s a sort of a mark of quality—I take responsibility for the information in the caption—and also because I’m human and I like the fruits of my labor to be acknowledged. And ShareAlike just keeps Attribution and NonCommercial attached even on successive shares. Of course, I know this is the Internet and the war on attributing images was lost in maybe 1996, but I will fight a rear-guard action until my dying day—or until I have a change of heart. That said, I don’t begrudge any educators who download my photos a few minutes before class and put them into their PowerPoint without attribution—your students don’t need to know who took those photos! We’re all doing our best. But I’d like to see attributions if you use my photos for, say, a public lecture, or share it on Facebook.
Flickr is sort of an interesting space compared to Wikimedia Commons, since you can use it for archiving/cataloguing as I do, but you coexist with professional or at least accomplished amateur photographers, whose uploads are more aesthetically motivated. That’s been a good inspiration to work on my own techniques, although I’m always still learning and (hopefully) improving. (There’s also the social media aspect of Flickr, with comments and likes; sometimes a little hit of dopamine helps the uploading go up.) I’d say this points toward a central tension in my photographic work (and my life), between the material/scientific and the humanistic, somewhere along the line between being a Mediterranean archaeologist and being a Classical archaeologist. I don’t think we can ever fully escape aesthetic considerations, nor should we want to, but how and when and why are active ongoing questions. A fuller exposition of that tension is beyond the present text, however.
In the past I’ve uploaded photos of artifacts without good provenience, especially from US museums. These are often of the more spectacular sorts of objects (and often better lit than most museums)—like the Cleveland Apollo https://www.flickr.com/photos/dandiffendale/23825064002—and appealing from a purely aesthetic point of view. From the point of view of archaeological ethics, though, it gets dodgy. I worry that I’m contributing to a decontextualizing objectification that smooths the edges between the archaeological museum and the art museum and encourages viewing artifacts solely as objets d’art. And also, for those who use my photos for teaching or research, it blurs the boundaries between reliably authentic artifacts from good archaeological contexts and those without provenience, potentially fakes, forgeries, or otherwise fraudulent. There’s also the colonial context to consider. Given the number of photos I have from archaeological museums in the Mediterranean, I’m trying to focus on those for now, unless I have a good reason to do otherwise. (Of course, being in the Mediterranean is no guarantee of being non-colonial, as for example the Dodecannesian artifacts in Italian museums, or Levantine artifacts in the Istanbul museum, can attest. We could even talk about the Naples museum along similar lines…)
I’m not really confident in Flickr as a stable long-term repository. It’s been bought and sold over the years, notably by Yahoo, and there have been times when its demise seemed imminent, with several concomitant exoduses of photographers. I’ve continued using it in part because I’ve already invested so much time in it, and it remains useful for myself and for others, especially, in ease of searchability. I think Flickr also offers a good structure that could be ported over to a new platform if necessary. I had hopes along those lines a few years ago, when the Ancient World Image Bank, an ISAW project, was still active, hopes that my photos could get picked up by a stable institutional repository. In that regard, the recent announcement that Carole Raddato’s Flickr photos will be archived by the American Academy in Rome is a promising development.