Since the beginning of my fellowship, it has been an amazing journey both of my work and my spiritual journey. The fellowship gave me time to dedicate to my work, which was missing. By receiving the fellowship, it afforded me the focus to reflect, examine, inventory and understand in more depth the materials that I had accumulated over a decade as a documentary photographer.
In this case, we are talking about over hundred thousands of images (photographs/negatives), postcards, other documents which needed for years to sort out and knowing exactly what's in my possession. Though time is of the essence, I was always wondering how would it be possible to take time off from everyday life and focus on this important work. The fellowship came at a time that I was contemplating and having my own reflection of the work, which means the materials need to be a safeguarded, preserved and at the same time shared with the public-at-large. The second aspect is that, not only safeguarding or preserving, but the work would need more than that. This means, having the knowledge of archival management, which would farther enhance the work. I knew from the start, creating the work was the easiest part for me since I have the technical know-how as a documentary photographer, but the archival management knowledge was something that I need to be trained. Surprisingly, this field is very small and especially those who specialized in community-based archives.
Here is the definition of Community-based archives: ”Community-based archives serve as an alternative venue for communities to make collective decisions about what is of enduring value to them, to shape collective memory of their own pasts, and to control the means through which stories about their past are constructed." - (South Asian American Digital Archive)
The main goal of the work is to create a visual/text archival record of the Somali migration globally with the idea of;
a) To have a record of a society on the move, as they settled and begun a new life in a new land
b) Protecting and preserving this archival record for now and for future generations
To my surprise, I did not anticipate the magnitude of the materials in my possession. What I mean by that is: before my fellowship I was in the mode of collecting and did not realize how much work needs to be done. To overcome this issue, luckily beforehand I secured a position as Community Archivist Resident at the Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA) at the University of Minnesota.
Here are a few of the things I gained through this residency at IHRCA — these are, but not limited to:
a) Participated in hands-on (individual and group) practicum sessions and workshops
b) Inventoried materials, conducted research with specific identifications of photographs in order to provide their broader historical meanings
c) The residency enhanced my visibility as a Community Archivist, locally and nationally
d) Community Archivist Resident afforded me to create a great network from a national level to international
e) Participating in national conferences
f) Giving lectures in both community setting and academic spaces
g) Being mentored and offering mentorship to the youth in the community
h) Educating the community about the importance of Community Archives
j) Trained in archival leadership management and gained an appreciation for the differences between traditional and community archives
As I reflect on my journey as my fellowship comes to an end, I wonder If I would have achieved all of these things that without it? How would I have gained this knowledge without the fellowship? One thing for sure, the fellowship has enhanced the outlook of my work more than I could explain in here! In other words both theoretically and practically I feel that I had grown into a new field and could say, my trajectory from documentary photographer to Community Archivist now has a solid base of more understanding my early work and what lays ahead.
My journey from documentary photographer to community archivist has been a long one and will continue well into the foreseeable future. It’s not that this new field would interfere with my earlier work as a documentary photographer, but I do see it as one that would strengthen and compliment my lifelong mission— that is, documenting a community that is still migrating and settling in a new place. Moreover, becoming a community archivist has enhanced the practical aspect of the archive-making in my documentary work, which was missing when I started Somali Documentary project in 2003. This new field as a community archivist has helped me to think differently even as a documentary photographer. The basic tasks of a documentary photographer are to capture the things that are in front of us at that decisive moment and recorded as historical evidence of our existence. Subsequently, once photographed, we stash the work somewhere or we may exhibit the work or make the occasional monogram. But most of us, as photographers, we don’t think of the overall value of the work beyond what is in our immediate possession. Besides the occasional exhibition, rarely do we consider the totality of that work within the context of the archive— in order to provide access to a larger audience unless those materials have been inherited by archival institutions.
Much better understanding my own work comes with more appreciation of what the work entails and what it means to me now and the future. Now that I have a clear vision on where I am headed with this work and especially as a trained Community Archivist, it gives me the latitude to envision many ways to create a space for the community. Moreover, the fellowship is bittersweet, in one aspect was very fruitful, time well spend and the other hand came to an end too soon.
Although in hindsight, I would have planned in a different way, in every new project that we start in our lives at times, it would be very difficult to foresee what's coming and how things would unfold. This is a common issue of human incapability of not being able to forecast the future. A project only becomes clearer as it is closing because you now know what you wished you could have known at the start. However, this is the beauty of creating work and learning along the process. Now that I know more and have been trained by colleagues in the archival field, I can move forward and preserve my material for the community as it belongs to them and their historical records.
With that being said, for my case, I would say this opportunity of been a been a fellow for the last two years has served me well and I had accomplished more than I could have imagined. Though this accomplishment was not simple and easy, I had to face long hours of working alone, since I am what they called in the archival field, “Lone Arranger” — meaning: working alone for long hours inventorying materials, indexing, researching and cataloging. This kind of work could be exhausting and could be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. Though self-care requires healthy ways of thinking, broader understanding of what needs to be accomplished at this moment and what could wait, without being overworked or burnt out.
The combination of self-evaluating, self-caring, self-sustaining, self-development, is a process that I will continue even long after my tenure fellowship ends. The knowledge that I have gained thus far, I believe, it has planted the seeds in me that hopefully some of the fruits from this labor, the community and I able to reap at this moment while I believe some of these seeds are underground, germinating and will be able to see the rewards in future to come.
One of the thing that surprised me the most while doing the work and through my fellowship was the material support and encouragement from the community throughout this effort and continued over a decade. This is because the foundation of this work was always the community's effort, guidance and that was their decision on what I can collect. The narrative and voice that is always missing is the community and how they want to be represented. To document your own community over a decade locally and globally comes with humbling experience when people open up themselves and reveal even their moment of vulnerability at the same time share their success and joy. This requires a commitment that we should never betray the trust we were given and present the people or the community and their stories as they would have presented themselves if they were given the chance.