It was the end of the last century. At a time when the World Wide Web had not yet reached the age of (un)reason. Although the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had stopped producing its films on celluloid some ten years earlier, digital technology had not yet relegated videocassettes to the status of museum objects.
On the pretext of my imminent retirement after a little over twenty-five years in the job, I’d like to take a personal look – hence the use of the first person – at the evolution of the audiovisual archivist’s profession during this period. Not to discuss all the changes in the profession, of which there have been many. Rather, to share impressions, like when you return from a (long) trip and want to share what you’ve seen, what has left you amazed, excited. Annoyed or frustrated at times.
When I joined the ICRC in May 1998, I had a Master’s degree in contemporary history and a diploma as non-specialist archivist-documentalist. Although I had been working for a dozen years, I had no experience in audiovisual archiving. “You will gain experience,” answered the person who hired me when I told her about my inexperience in the field. A response as wise as it was bold, and one that is all too rare in such situations.
Being a neophyte doesn’t mean you can’t be curious. In my first few months on the job, I had to come to terms with a vocabulary, with terms and concepts that were new to me. And of course, and I should say above all, I immersed myself in the subject matter: the content of the films and videos produced by the ICRC since 1921, which I was responsible for archiving. A series of terms ending in -ing or -ion soon became part of my daily routine: indexing, uploading, acquisition, description, preservation. Others would become part of my practice only after a few years: digitization and valorization.
At the end of the 1990s, at least at the ICRC Film archives, we were still living in an analog world. I worked with U-matic, BVU and Betacam SP, all professional recording formats – in other words formats of cassettes on which video productions had been and were being recorded. Already at that time, we were sent preservation masters, when they existed, on Digi Beta. I was told, and this amazed me, that we didn’t have a Digi Beta player at the ICRC because it costed over fifty thousand francs! These digital cassettes, the first of their kind, were followed at the turn of the millennium by DVCPRO, DVCAM and HDV. Although the digital world had arrived, we had not yet entered the era of dematerialization. There was something comforting about continuing to acquire new productions on cassettes. As if we were postponing the inevitable entry into what appeared then as the somewhat frightening world of ko, Mo, Go, To.
I struggled with these units for a long time, especially when I had to convert ko to Go in file explorer. All it takes is moving the decimal point six units to the left, sure, but if you’re not good with numbers like me, it’s not that easy! And then, in 2015, once I started working with native digital videos, rather than just digitized videos, I got the hang of it.
To date, the ICRC’s film archives amount to almost 30 To, or about 0.03 Po – I’ll leave it to you to calculate how much that is in Go! At this rate, we’ll have to wait a few more decades before they become a Peta site, like the Cinémathèque suisse, whose servers held 7 Po at the end of 2022.
The descriptive part of archiving remains unchanged, unlike the technological aspects. Whether the video to be archived has been produced on an analog medium or is natively digital, the description and indexing process are the same. These steps make research in the fonds possible.
Since I don’t want to go into the details of the management process here, I’ll just mention one aspect, perhaps the most interesting: watching a movie or video in order to prepare its description for the database. It means giving it a title, writing a summary – if these two elements are not provided by the producers – and selecting the keywords that will allow it to be found. Repeated thousands of times for each new production, this indexing work allowed me to discover the breadth and depth of the fonds for which I was responsible and to get to know it well.
What I found particularly interesting from the first days on the job was that I had to deal with the entire lifecycle of documents, from acquisition to description, preservation and publication. Since I’ve been lucky enough to have seen every film and video produced by the ICRC since 1921, I couldn’t help but want to share these documents with anyone who might be interested.
For a long time, when the videos were produced and kept on tapes, it was mainly our ‘cousins’ in the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, some media and, of course, our ICRC colleagues in charge of public communication who knew about the existence of this fonds.
Answering their requests was laborious, to say the least. A request would arrive by email. After searching our database, we would share a selection in text, with a series of descriptive metadata. On the basis of this information, the requester would indicate which productions he or she was interested in. We would then have these copied onto DVDs by a subcontractor, with a time code inserted into the image. This allowed the requester to refine their selection, and us to verify that the sequences they had chosen really belonged to the ICRC. If and when this was confirmed, we would order these sequences on professional format cassettes and send them to the requester by mail. The whole process could easily take two weeks.
At the turn of the 2010s, digitizing our film and video holdings became a necessity, not only to facilitate access to our film archives, but also to preserve our often fragile or deteriorating analog media. All the more so as the audiovisual sector was facing a double obsolescence: that of the media and that of the equipment used to play them.
Digitization, yes, but in what format? Unlike photo and sound formats, which had existed for several years, there was no standardized format for moving images. In the summer of 2009, after several meetings with archivists and video specialists, a young colleague with whom we were considering the feasibility of digitizing our fonds expressed: “Everyone is standing on the edge of the precipice, waiting for someone to jump first”.
In 2014, we were one of the first international organizations to jump. After attending training courses at the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) and commissioning in 2013 an expertise from this organization, a pioneer in the field of digitization, we were ready to take the plunge.
In parallel, we changed the software we had been using since 1998 to manage our audiovisual archives – not only film archives, but also photo and sound archives – because it lacked a web module. The project mobilized us for several years: nothing is ever easy in IT, especially audiovisual IT! Eventually, by the fall/winter of 2015-2016, we had an ecosystem that allowed us to manage the entire lifecycle of documents, from acquisition to online publication on the ICRC audiovisual archives portal, known colloquially as AVA.
While the entire collection is now digitized or natively digital, the question of its long-term electronic archiving remains as crucial as it is thorny. Currently, all the files are securely stored on a server on the ICRC’s premises, but this alone doesn’t guarantee long-term preservation. To comply with best practices, data should also be stored on another technology, such as LTO cassettes. We did not get satisfaction on this point.
The launch of the website not only greatly increased the visibility of our fonds – it is very well ranked by search engines – but has also greatly simplified how we respond to requests. All that remains of the process described above is the review of selected sequences for productions including non-ICRC images. For media requests, we also take care of sending high-resolution files, since only low-resolution files can be downloaded directly from the portal. If there are rights restrictions, direct downloads are not allowed and we send the files, after reviewing the selected images, with a notice to use only validated sequences.
Why was it important to make our film archives available online? To inform as many people as possible about the ICRC’s action, of course, but also to help them discover the breadth and depth of this fonds. I won’t go into the history of the ICRC filmography here. There are several publications on this blog that do just that, and I can only recommend you read them. Instead, I’d like to emphasize the invaluable resource that this fonds represents for anyone interested in humanitarian issues, from documentary (film)makers, (film)historians, students and even artists. Too often little known by our colleagues, it is also of particular interest to anyone working at the ICRC.
A century of moving images. When you look back, it is striking to note the continuity in how the “humanitarian gesture” is captured. May I remind you that the ICRC, a pioneer in this field, made its first films in 1921, just twenty-five years after the invention of cinema! A 1920s relief effort is in many ways similar to a relief action today. What has changed, however, is the way the action is filmed. For several decades, ICRC films had a male lead: the delegate. No need for inclusive writing here, since there were no female delegates until the 1960s! The ‘victims’ – as people helped by the ICRC were referred to – remained silent extras. Only in the 1980s were they given a voice, and rarely so. It took until the turn of the century for testimonies of people (now referred to as beneficiaries) to take center stage. The delegates – women and men – are now filmed as their equals, no longer in a prominent position.
There is, of course, much more to be said about the content of our film archives. One final comment, however. I have often been troubled by the sad repetition of the situations pictured. Throughout the century covered by this fonds, there were few, if any, years without conflict. Since the ICRC is meant to protect and assist those affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence, it is quite inevitable that the films and videos it creates to document its work feature similar images.
These images show man’s destructive power and fury, and viewing them daily for years on end can be disheartening. At the same time, violence is contrasted with the humanitarian gesture which, even if it must be repeated tirelessly, is a source of hope. Above all for the people to whom it is addressed, but also for the archivist who records it.
From the early 1920s to the present day, the ICRC has always produced films, and later videos, to document and publicize its activities, as well as to raise funds. Unsurprisingly, the more affordable and easier to handle the equipment became (35 mm, then 16 mm cameras, camcorders, smartphones), the more films and videos were produced. On top of technological evolutions, the multiplication of the contexts in which the ICRC operates also led to an increase in production.
The rise of social media over the last twelve years has transformed the nature of of videos created by the institution. Social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (now X), LinkedIn, and TikTok (I might have missed some, and others will surely replace them or get added to the list) now represent the ICRC’s main channel for public communication. It is crucial to exist on these networks in a competitive humanitarian environment, and each filmed clip answers a unique communication need. But, in the long-term vision of the profession, archiving all those social media clips doesn’t necessarily make sense. How is one to make a selection, however, when such content represents the majority of ICRC productions ? How do we keep track of the institution’s action – as we are mandated to do – if we stop preserving these productions meant to have a short lifespan in users’ feed (with a few rare exceptions) ?
When, in a few decades, historians will look back on the videos produced by the ICRC in the early 2020s, they will learn more about the media and communications world in which the ICRC operated than about its own humanitarian action. That is enough to look back with a bit of nostalgia on the 35 mm and 16 mm films that made up the film archives’ historical fonds and on videos from before the ‘all digital’ era, which provide a wealth of information on the ICRC’s action from 1921 to approximately 2010.
Do not let this concern obscure the undeniable richness of the ICRC’s film archives. They will undoubtedly have to be examined differently for the early years of the 21st century than for the eight decades of the last century. But there’s no doubt that those who take the time to study them will find there plenty of food for thought.
Judge for yourself. The ICRC film archives have grown tremendously in the twenty-five years I’ve been in charge. Not so much because of any merit on my part – other than the fact that I have been able to absorb this (sometime quite exponential) increase – but because of the elements described above: the expansion of the ICRC’s activities and technological evolutions.
When I arrived in the spring of 1998, the film archives consisted of 201 video montages, plus 21 16mm films transferred to videocassettes. The bulk of the so-called historical collection – 35 mm and 16 mm films – had not yet been archived. On the eve of my retirement, there are 5589 montages of 35 mm and 16 mm films and videos, all digitized or digital. Since the vast majority exist in several language versions, we can say that the ICRC film archives hold 10394 documents. Talk about food for thought…
Having archived two-thirds of them myself – the rest have been archived from 2014-2022 by a different intern each year – is a source of satisfaction. As is the fact that I have personally responded to thousands of requests for images over the years. But, eventually, the one legacy I am most proud of is having organized this fonds practically from zero and given it a lasting structure. Not everything is perfect, far from it, but the decisions made twenty-five years ago have stood the test of time. No doubt that now, after years of gaining experience, attending training courses and dialogue with my peers, I would do some things differently. But isn’t the main point that anyone wishing to follow the ICRC’s action over the last century through its films and videos can do so by consulting the ICRC audiovisual archives portal?
As you will have understood, film archives – and audiovisual archives in general – are constantly enriched by new productions. Since most of them are created to support public communication, they remain in the public domain when they are acquired by the archives and are not subject to the protection period applicable to other categories of documents.
One of the challenges of the archiving process is the lack of metadata provided by the producers. Forced to produce a lot and quickly, their priority is not to provide the elements that archivists need to describe and index in line with professional standards, which makes in turn the archived documents retrievable. And it must be said that even when the ICRC’s obligation to communicate about its work was less frenetic, information about the context of a film’s production and the people involved was not abundant.
This brings us to my greatest regret. For lack of time, I didn’t have the opportunity to delve into our “paper” archives to document each and every one of our films from the historical collection (1921-1988), as well as the most significant corporate videos produced over the following thirty years. As an archivist, but also a historian by training, I would really have liked to do this and contribute to an (even) better understanding of this collection.
In my introduction, I mentioned my desire to go through the album of my professional life over the last quarter century. When you put it that way – a quarter of a century – it sounds even longer than twenty-five years! What if I were to look to the future now and imagine what the audiovisual archiving profession will look like in a few years? The major technological changes of the last few decades were probably just the start. The development of artificial intelligence (AI), which seems to be accelerating recently, will undoubtedly change practices just as the arrival of digital technology did. In the future, image and speech recognition will be part of the archivist’s tools, in some cases facilitating content search and indexing. However, contrary to what some people imagine, I don’t think AI will replace archivists in the near future.
No matter how well it performs, an AI’s memory cannot compete with that of an archivist who is passionate about his or her work. His or her memory may be fallible, but he or she will have qualities a machine cannot acquire. Among these is the sensitive eye that the archivist working with the images produced by the ICRC must have, given their very nature. If you doubt this, take a look at AVA. I’m sure you will feel the emotions I’ve often felt over the years when I had the chance and privilege of looking after these archives.
Translated by Charlotte Mohr.