Posted on 2022-05-07.

Photo Archives VIII

This was a talk I had the opportunity to co-write and hold at the Photo Archives VIII in May 2022.

Inclusive and Participatory Interfaces for Photo Archives as New Research Opportunity


Ulrike Felsing, Max Frischknecht 0000-0001-8043-1895, Adrian Demleitner 0000-0001-9918-7300


Participation, inclusion,  individual photo-narratives, interface design


The proposal discusses the development of a participatory interface for digital photo archives from a conceptual, technological and design perspective.

Photographic archives have been steadily digitizing their materials. A key argument that is brought up in favor of digitization is the hope for an increased level of access. However, the first years of experience with digital archives have also shown that digital availability alone does not automatically lead to broader use of photographic collections (Brunner 2017). For a consistently dialogic orientation of the archives, it is becoming increasingly important to involve the users. This approach is being followed by our research team using the example of the photo archive of the Swiss Society for Folklore Studies  through the development of interface tools that enable for example the creation of individual collections and visual narratives.

Cultural heritage collections such as photographic archives, implicitly refer to the power relations that determine what has been deemed worthy of archiving or not (Horstmann & Kopp 2010). Participation can play an important role in that it can reduce the “exclusive decision-making power” (Brunner 2017, 7) of the archives in favor of democratization. It can enable other members of society, whose voice in the archives traditionally had little impact, to contribute and include their views and practices. Although technological developments have ensured that more and more people are involved in the creation of visual narratives, these practices are rarely included in archives. Through increased participation digital archives can facilitate and document a social discourse surrounding photographic practice.

Our research centers around the following questions: 1) How can a visual interface support participation in archival tasks? 2) How can participants change the established archive-based narratives and create more subjective approaches to the archive? 3) How do archival institutions benefit from participation, and what do users get out of it?

We will present and discuss aspects of content, possible design solutions  as well as the underlying technology of a participatory interface that allows users to create their individual collections and narratives within the photo archive. These can be created from archival images, personal image uploads or images from other online collections through the implementation of international standards for the digital exchange of images and archival material. The new collections can be enhanced by related material, collaboratively edited by communities of users and shared to facilitate discussions and increase participation further. Through the proposed interface solution, participants can engage with their cultural identity and history, share their knowledge with other users, and challenge archive-based narratives. In return, the archive benefits from new perspectives on the collection, and the contextual knowledge and metadata of the collection will be improved.

Technologically, the interface operates on top of open-source practices such as accessible documentation, application program interfaces (APIs), and IIIF which aids in regulating the digital exchange of images. The proposed interface and software strive to integrate itself with the growing network of cultural heritage institutions that actively share their archival material and ensure long-term sustainability regarding their digital archives.

This proposal is produced as part of the interdisciplinary work on the SNSF research project “Participatory Knowledge Practices in Analogue and Digital Image Archives” (PIA) with the participation of the Seminar for Cultural Studies and European Ethnology (University of Basel), Institute of Design Research (Bern Academy of the Arts), Digital Humanities Lab (University of Basel) and Department of Mathematics and Computer Science (University of Basel). The project is collectively led by Walter Leimgruber (University of Basel), Peter Fornaro (University of Basel) and Ulrike Felsing (Bern Academy of the Arts).