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Challenges Face Project Documenting Protests in Ferguson

One of the dozens of images Joel Levy submitted to the Documenting Ferguson project
Joel Levy/Courtesy of Documenting Ferguson

A unique blend of technological, circumstantial and social issues face archivists and documentarians who are trying to preserve the events of the past five months in Ferguson.

The Contributor

Joel Levy, 20, stands on West Florissant Avenue, a central site during the protests over the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. His initial interest in Ferguson was opportunistic, spurred by the heat of the moment, yet he’s now dedicated to portraying the broader story of what’s happened in Ferguson since Aug. 9.

“The whole reason I came out here originally is because I heard there was a riot and I just wanted to drive by and take a couple photos, but eventually it became  something else entirely, now it is a life experience, “ Levy said.

Levy is the number one contributor to Washington University’s "Documenting Ferguson" project, a crowd-sourced repository of images and testimony that began in August. As we talked recently, his back was toward the store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars before being stopped and shot by Darren Wilson. Levy points to one building untouched by looting and arson and another across the street that is little more than rubble, discussing how the multiplicity of experience related to Ferguson doesn’t seem to be a major media priority. 

Levy said he couldn't imagine a better home for dozens and dozens of images he has sent in than the documenting Ferguson project.

“It means, for one, that they’re free and anyone can use them; you don’t got to pay for them, and they’re going to be there forever. So now they’re part of history I guess,” Levy said

Levy doesn’t work for AP or Reuters. He makes no money from his photos. His work was fueled by what he saw as a dire necessity to record the events in Ferguson. If asked about his experience taking photos, he admits to being hassled by protesters and police, but quickly brushes past the bad, to focus on the good, even when discussing being punched by someone in a tense moment.

Joel Levy on W. Florissant Ave., the site of many images he later submitted to Documenting Ferguson
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio
Joel Levy on W. Florissant Ave., the site of many images he later submitted to Documenting Ferguson

  “Some of it was understandable, when you have a traumatic situation happen in your community you’re sort of in an emotional state where you’re not making rational decisions.” He said, “I don’t blame them.”

Levy’s primary concern is that people from St. Louis and beyond have a chance to see his images and get a better understanding of the events unfolding after Aug. 9, 2014.

“What I want is for people to see the images and let the images tell a story, you know a picture's worth a thousand words, so hopefully there’s a whole books worth of stories with those photos,” Levy said.

The Librarian

Levy’s passion to record and share that media is common, yet Documenting Ferguson and similar archives face two main roadblocks: building community trust and archiving new technologies.

Makiba Foster spends most of her day conducting research for Washington University for professors in Olin Library, managing digital projects, and sometimes reviewing submissions to Documenting Ferguson. She says Documenting Ferguson has a clear purpose.

“Ultimately we would hope this would be something that will allow for a more nuanced or better understanding of what happened Aug. 9, and following that, not only in Ferguson but around the world,” said Foster, who came on the project two weeks after it was launched.

Makiba Foster helps manage the Documenting Ferguson project at Washington University
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio
Makiba Foster helps manage the Documenting Ferguson project at Washington University

Foster says the project is deep in the first stage of gathering content. They’ve haven’t yet developed a method for sorting the information or designed the best way to present the content gathered so far. On the site, submitted testimony, images and data appear in reverse chronological order; the most recent submissions are the most available. Foster’s goal is to turn this repository into an independent archive for the people, free of overt media influence. Currently, she’s still persuading people to contribute. Her time is focused on one primary objective.

“We’re really thinking about the stories that are involved and how we can go into those communities and have trust to where they would feel comfortable telling us their experiences with the protests and the death of Mike Brown,” Foster said.

To try to gain community support, she attends events such as those organized under the Ferguson October banner two months ago. Foster made headway, gathering pamphlets and posters, handing out flyers soliciting content for the archive. Yet, she’s aware of the archive’s limitations, specifically in the realm of capturing and processing social media related to Ferguson.

“We’re trying to capture the social media because that was really important to the early beginning of this particular movement but it’s still a struggle to figure out how to get what you need,” she said.

The Challenges

Michelle Caswell, professor of archival and information studies at UCLA, is an expert in community archiving. According to her, capturing important moments from fluid platforms like Twitter and Facebook and migrating that information to external databases can be technically difficult.

Jimi Lee Jones, a professor at the graduate school of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says one of the issues is cloud-based technology. Videos posted from a mobile device directly to platforms like Vine or Facebook  have no “local copy.” A local copy is like an original file that can be transferred or incorporated into another database.  Jones sums it up the issue succinctly.

“We could see down the road that if you close your Facebook account in seven years, or Facebook goes out of business, and you didn’t save a copy of that video to your own hard drive, that video may go away, it may be gone,” Jones said, “and that may be a very important document.”

Both Jones and Caswell agree that these social media sources are great for creating content but function poorly as trustworthy vaults for preserved documentation.

Levy's image of the Michael Brown memorial in Canfield Green the night of August 10, 2014
Credit Joel Levy/Courtesy of Documenting Ferguson
Levy's image of the Michael Brown memorial in Canfield Green the night of August 10, 2014

  Additionally, there are still debates about who technically owns digital imagery or video like Vine. The intellectual property is the creators', but the actual data, the bytes of information, may belong to the company depending on the user agreements clicked on when you begin using their services. 

Archivists also face the challenge of preserving rapidly changing formats. 

“We need to make sure that tweets and cell phone generated video footage and photos don’t become the floppy disks of the future where 15 years from now people won’t be able to access the tweets or photos that are being generated during the Ferguson protest,” said Caswell.

Yet Caswell says the concerns surrounding new technologies are still secondary to gathering information, and gaining community trust. 

“A project like Documenting Ferguson is only as strong as its contributions,” Caswell said.

It’s a maxim that rings true for all community based archives: they are only as strong as the support they receive.