Jacobson presents online documentation project
He used the website’s photographic content to discuss the most recent processes in American history such as the economic recession, racism, immigration and the Occupy movements.
Jacobson started the lecture by explaining the “Historian’s Eye” project and said it “seeks to trace the fate of ‘our better history’ as the nation faces unprecedented challenges with a president at the helm who is fully inspirational to some, palpably unnerving to others.”
The phrase “our better history” was taken from Obama’s inauguration speech in 2009, he explained. Jacobson added that the election of Barack Obama was also the main inspiration in creating “Historian’s Eye.”
“It is about creating an archive that can be looked back [on] ... it is almost a time capsule,” he said.
The project also “seeks to encourage a new relationship to history itself — a mental habit of apprehending the past in the present and history-in-the-making.”
“One of the things that documentary photography seeks to do is not only document specificity but also generality.”
“Historian’s Eye” contains around 2,500 photographs and an archive with 70 hours of audio interviews. The website also contains a public participation section.
The photographs are catalogued by place and theme, not chronological order. Jacobson explained that “the archive is completely non-linear.”
The audio section contains interview materials that try to “get the full spectrum,” and subjects include investment bankers, politicians, carpenters and the unemployed, among others.
Regarding the public participation section, Jacobson explained that “there is a wiki aspect” to his project, and that the website expects public submissions. “I always saw it as a collective project,” he added.
“Almost every day I’m getting something from someone I don’t know.” Jacobson went on to show a submission from a school in Korea pretending to “Occupy Korea.”
“The Occupy movement is precisely the demographic this project seems to have been built for,” he said.
Jacobson then said he had been criticized for only using black and white photographs, because “color is data.” But he explained that, in our cultural and advertising landscape, to use black and white is to “announce [that the images] are requesting a certain kind of attention.”
“It’s an important aesthetic to the website,” he said.
However, Jacobson noted that “photographs [only] capture what is visible publicly, which leaves out entire dimensions of the story.”
His lecture then turned to discussing the social consequences of the election of President Barack Obama, as documented in his project.
That Obama is an “omnipresent icon in our culture is saying something very important,” Jacobson said. He explained that “race is very clearly ... part of the positive Obama image.”
However, he noted that “what has kind of snuck in is the issue of citizenship itself,” in reference to the doubts expressed about Obama’s American citizenship.
He said that Obama had not been questioned on racial grounds but rather along the lines that “it’s not that he is black, it’s that he is not American.”
Jacobson then explained that there had been a surge in anti-immigration movements in the last couple of years. Despite the economic situation “one of the few places hiring right now is the U.S. border patrol,” he said.
However, “immigration rates are down, as they always are in a recession,” he added, and the Obama administration has deported more people than any previous one.
He then said that there had been a hike in anti-Islamic movements since the Obama inauguration and that those movements often stress the president’s Arabic middle name.
“They are merged,” he said about anti-immigration and anti-Islam movements. These issues were not new, he added, but had emerged more strongly with Obama’s election.
About the Occupy movements, Jacobson said he hoped these would create “a space for conversation” and noted that they were already “shifting the public debate” on political economy.
While discussing a photograph depicting the protests against British Petroleum in 2010, Jacobson said that “in a way, they predicted the Occupy movement.”
However, he explained, “it is not my interest at all for someone to view one of my photographs and join the Occupy movement.”
Matthew Frye Jacobson is a professor of American studies, African American studies and history at Yale University. The lecture held in McCormick Hall 101 was presented by the Program in American Studies, the Center for African American Studies and the Department of History.
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