A follow up to the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference two weeks ago: WITNESS Archive staff attended an thoughtful session entitled “Recording Retribution: Issues in the Curation of, and Access to, Actuality Footage of War and Atrocity.” Speakers included staff from the Imperial War Museum, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Inkulla Media. Presentations focused on the tension between providing access to important historical footage and respecting the privacy and dignity of the individuals depicted. Various clips were shown to that tension.

– Footage of 1941 war ship being torpedoed and blown apart. No individuals are seen by the viewer. Without accompanying context, you would not know that you were watching the moment of death for the 850-some people on board. The question was raised: should this be allowed use for a commercial advertisement of a “blow out” sale?

– Footage of WWII soldiers in 1944 experiencing “shell shock” or post-traumatic stress disorder. Without accompanying context, we do not know that the doctor who shot the film intended it be used ‘for medical records only.’ If used for a documentary on the war, it is possible that living relatives might see the footage. Are we right to allow re-contextualization from private medical record to television broadcast?

Largely, archivists consider footage requests on a case-by-case basis. Generally, requests to archives for this type of footage for television commercials, advertising, video games, etc. are not considered appropriate use. When denied, the person requesting may accuse the archive of “censoring” requests and prohibiting access.

On the other hand, many archivists now seem to feel that ethical concerns are outweighed by the public seeing the footage – so many are providing digital access through streaming on their websites and on platforms like YouTube. One archivist observed that there are 44,000 images alone on YouTube relating to WWII. However, along with greater access comes the concern that the footage is being viewed (and perhaps commented on) by people who aren’t emotionally or ethically equipped to respond to the images in the way we intend or hope.

The session only touched the surface of the ethics-versus-access debate, but I am hopeful that further discussion will continue beyond the conference.

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