Best Practices

Conservation, Preservation, and Access Workflows of the Archive of Malian Photography


In the past decade, a number of important photographic archives have been lost in Mali due to damage from heat, flooding, abrasion, and theft. Such loss of irreplaceable primary sources is tragic for research and education around the globe as well as the cultural patrimony of Mali. Lest they meet the same fate, the Archive of Malian Photography (AMP) has developed a series of workflows to promote the conservation and preservation of the photographic negative collections that remain.

To safeguard AMP materials, the physical negatives never leave Mali. The AMP Bamako-based conservation team, which includes a family representative for each archive (typically a son or early apprentice who is intimately familiar with the material and its contents), helps select negatives for processing and then cleans, rehouses, scans, and catalogs the materials in Mali. Each representative is accompanied by a Bamako-based photography student or young photographer to both develop their capacity in this work and to ensure that each archive has two staff members processing the collection. Image post-processing of website jpegs is completed in East Lansing by Michigan State University (MSU) students under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Candace Keller, AMP project director.

What follows is a description of AMP workflows for selection, cleaning, rehousing, scanning, cataloging, translating, and post-processing access copies of the scanned negatives. These guidelines are based on best practices and were developed in collaboration with specialists in the fields of photographic negative conservation, negative scanning, and digital archives and libraries.


The first phase of the project (2011-2013) was generously funded by the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme, which prioritized processing the oldest photographic archives -- those with the most fragile negatives in advanced states of physical deterioration -- starting with the earliest negatives and continuing in order (without selection). Among the first generation of professional African photographers in Mali, the archives of Seydou Keïta (c.1921-2001) are held by SKPEAC and CAAC - The Pigozzi collection in Europe, and those of Mountaga Dembélé (1919-2003), Baru Koné (1920-2008), Youssouf Traoré (c.1919-1989), and Samba Bâ (c.1919-2000) are purportedly largely or wholly lost. Therefore, we focused on the archives of Mamadou Cissé (1930-2003) and Abdourahmane Sakaly (1926-1988) during the British Library phase of the project. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, respectively, their archives represent the early beginnings of photography in Mali (the first African-operated studio establishments in the country date to the late 1930s-50s), commissioned by private patrons as well as colonial and national governments. In Cissé's archives, approximately 5,000 negatives date to the 1940s, around 17,500 date to the 1950s, and some 35,000 were created in the 1960s. In those of Sakaly, about 9,250 date to the 1950s, and 75,000 date to the 1960s.

During the second phase of the project (2014-17), funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities' Preservation and Access program, the project team updated AMP's selection criteria. Rather than focus solely on the oldest negatives, AMP chose to sample across each photographers' career. This phase of the project has focused on the archives of four important photographers (Abdourahmane Sakaly, Malick Sidibé, Tijani Sitou, and Adama Kouyaté) with the following rationale:

  • These are among the most locally, and internationally, renowned photographers in Mali;
  • Together, their collections form an historical overview of professional studio and governmental photography practices in Mali from the early period of the 1950s to the 1990s, spanning three generations;
  • Their archives document three major sites (Bamako, Ségu, Mopti) where photography has flourished since the 1950s;
  • Their oeuvres capture changes and continuities in cultural practices, artistic production, social trends, and political realities in Mali and, by extension, francophone western Africa, and are at once emblematic of their eras and specific to the unique artistic innovations and photographic styles of their creators;
  • Their collections, which contain medium-format (6x6cm) and 35mm negatives, and original prints, are among the most substantial, viable for digitization, and in need of preservation.

Within these collections, AMP selections (target: 20,000 negatives/photographer) prioritize the following criteria:

  • Artistic value (formally interesting, unique, innovative, emblematic images);
  • Significant historic, social, political periods/events;
  • Span career (for example, sample 1,000 negatives/year for a 20-year career);
  • Best of kind (the best among duplicate images are selected, in lieu of redundancies);
  • Condition of negative (prioritize vulnerable negatives yet avoid compromised negatives, unless of high historic/artistic value);
  • Include medium-format, black-and-white negatives, 35mm color negatives c.1980, and original prints (if available).

AMP's Selection Guidelines: (English) (French).

Conservation: Cleaning and Rehousing Negatives

Harsh climactic conditions in Mali jeopardize the negatives' physical integrity. Heat, dust, lack of humidity control, and even flooding during the wet season impact the condition of the negatives. Advised by Works on Paper and Photographic Conservator Heida Shoemaker, AMP staff adheres to the following best practices.

The first step in the conservation workflow focuses on eliminating dust and dirt from the surface of each negative. Conservators gently clean each negative with a non-static brush (see video tutorial part 1). Only if necessary, a conservator will use a small amount of alcohol on a cotton swab to remove water spots or oily fingerprints (see video tutorial part 2). On very rare occasions, a conservator might use a solvent (over the course of the project, we have used Pec-12, Delta C-100, and Solvon Film Cleaner and Conditioner, finding the latter preferable) to remove stains that remain after the alcohol treatment (see video tutorial part 3). All steps in the cleaning workflow are detailed in the AMP Conservation Workflow Instructions document (English) (French) and in 3 video tutorials.

After cleaning, conservators place the negatives in archival-safe envelopes and boxes. Prior to this rehousing, the conservator records information about the negative on the envelope. This includes the name of the original box from which the negative was pulled, the filename for the scanned negative, and a 3 to 5-word description of the subject of the negative. The steps in the rehousing workflow are detailed in the AMP ConservationWorkflow Instructions document .


Like the cleaning and rehousing workflow, AMP scanning procedures were developed in consultation with an expert in the field. In this case, we worked with Alex Nichols, a photographer and digital imaging specialist at MSU.

Balancing efficiency, quality, and cost, we have used a flatbed Epson Perfection V700 Photo Scanner, with aftermarket negative holders from Better Scanning that sit atop the glass scanning surface. Each holder accommodates 6 to 8 6x6cm negatives at a time. Medium-format, black-and-white negatives are scanned emulsion side up at 16-bit grayscale, 2400 ppi, 100% scale, and saved as TIFF files. All formatting and compression options are off so that the software does not apply image sharpening, color restoration, or grain reduction. The resulting TIFF files are approximately 60 MB/file. These scanning specifications conform to the best practices outlined in Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative's (FADGI) 2010 Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials: Creation of Raster Image Master Files, which were in effect when we developed the workflow in the summer of 2014. In 2016, FADGI adopted an updated version of these guidelines. AMP's current scanning specifications almost completely meet FADGI's 3 Star archival specifications. Our scanning resolution of 2400 ppi is more than FADGI's 2 Star level of 2000 ppi but just short of its 3 Star specification of 3000 ppi, which is recommended for archival and preservation level file creation.

The scanning workflow is detailed in the AMP Conservation Workflow Instructions document .


AMP conservators catalog each negative that has been scanned. Building on and fine-tuning metadata fields devised during the British Library phase of the project, the catalogers create descriptive, technical, and provenance metadata for the physical negatives and scans. Descriptive metadata is based on the Dublin Core Metadata Element set with some additional project based fields geared to filtering the materials on the website. Provenance metadata records information about the originating archive and where individual negatives and scans sit in the photographer's physical and digital archives. Importantly, the catalog includes some metadata fields in both French and English in order to ensure greater accessibility for global audiences. These fields, including the title and description, are translated from French into English at a later stage in the processing workflow (see the AMP Metadata Translation Workflow for more about this process). Many other fields like Date Original or Date Scanned are language independent.

Initially, AMP metadata is recorded in French in Excel files corresponding to the boxes that originally housed the negatives. The conservators/catalogers prepare most of the metadata while the negatives are in the process of being scanned, which gives them the opportunity to view the images while accurately describing the images. In an effort to streamline and speed up the cataloging process, AMP devised guidelines for writing image descriptions. The guidelines recommend that catalogers focus on culturally, historically, politically, or socially important aspects of the images that would not be obvious to foreign audiences, for example voting activity, cultural festivals, national celebrations, holidays, coup d'etat, or other political events. Further, the descriptions should note the use of props (telephone, flowers, toy gun, radio, moto, automobile, tea pot, painted framing device) and accessories (watch, fountain pen, glasses, sunglasses, cigarette, hat, pith helmet). However, descriptions need not attend to shot composition as AMP uses other fields to categorize various studio and reportage shots.

Item description guidelines are detailed in the AMP Conservation Workflow document.


As noted in the cataloging section, metadata describing each scanned image is recorded in an Excel file in French with Bamanankan cultural terms. Five local translators, identified with the assistance of Dr. Moussa Sissoko from the École Normale Supérieure in Bamako, review and then translate into English the catalogs. Specifically, these AMP team members translate the titles, descriptions of the images, and any information about the physical state of the original negatives (for example, if they have spots or fingerprints). Translation is done for meaning in English and is not literal. AMP also requires that culturally infused terms in French or Bamanankan remain parenthetically in the English descriptions. Maintaining these terms in the English description allows users to search for and find images described with these cultural terms in any one of the languages irrespective of how the term was translated. With dual and tri-lingual competency, translators also conduct quality control on the French descriptions, modifying grammatical or typographical errors that might appear.

AMP Metadata Translation English (English)

Image post-processing

For access purposes, AMP creates low-resolution jpeg files to distribute on the project website and for deposit at the Maison Africaine de la Photographie (MAP) in Bamako, Mali. MAP provides free onsite access to AMP materials in Mali so that local community members with limited or no Internet access can view the scanned images.

The low-resolution jpeg files are modified and, thus, differ from the high-resolution TIFF scans in several important ways. Each modification serves a specific purpose. First, in order to reflect the aesthetic preferences of the photographers and photographic subjects (as raw scans do not accurately reflect the aesthetic quality of original prints), particularly in the case of portraiture, AMP adjusts the contrast levels of each jpeg image so that skin appears clear and smooth without a great deal of contrast. As a result, in some cases, white clothing may appear "blown-out" or lacking details, as ideal skin-tone is privileged in the overall composition. Such aesthetic preference/criteria has been informed by Dr. Keller's research on photographic practice in Mali over the past fifteen years, working closely with professional photographers and clients.

Second, AMP intentionally down samples the high-quality TIFF scans to jpeg format with a resolution of 72ppi. 6x6cm negatives do not exceed 800 pixels square while 35mm negatives are resized to 900 pixels across the long dimension. The resulting files are approximately 400KB each, which display clearly online but do not print crisply enough for fine art purposes. These specifications allow students, teachers, and scholars to study the images for educational and research purposes yet their low resolution does not lend the scans to exploitation through unauthorized printing and resale.

Third, to assert the relationship between image and photographer, AMP adds a graphic element (the photographer's name in orange type) to the right header of each image. The graphic is no more than 30 pixels in height (using 8 point font), which means it will not interfere with the integrity of the shot (the way a watermark would). This modification was made as a compromise among project partners who wish to, at once, maintain proper attribution for each image, ensure usability of the image for research and educational purposes, and deter exploitation as much as possible.

AMP Post-Production Photoshop Workflow: (English)

Storage of negatives, TIFFs, jpegs, and metadata

After processing, the cleaned negatives -- preserved in acid-free archival-safe envelopes and boxes -- are returned to the photographer/archival custodian. They also receive a hard drive that contains the original high-resolution (TIFF) scans and catalog metadata (in English and French) for their own AMP-processed negatives.

With permission from the photographers/archival custodians, MSU/MATRIX houses a complete copy of the original high-resolution (TIFF) scans in perpetuity for archival preservation purposes. Through a Partnership Agreement (English) (French), AMP has secured permission from the photographers/archival custodians to store and deliver the low-resolution jpeg files in two venues. One copy of the distribution files and metadata (in French and English) is stored in a digital repository at MSU/MATRIX and delivered on the project's website. The jpeg files are made available to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA) license. Metadata created to describe the materials in AMP is licensed under the slightly more open Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA) license. (For more information about AMP Use Permissions, please go to AMP's Intellectual Property page.)

A second complete copy of the low-resolutions jpeg files and metadata is on deposit at the Maison Africaine de la Photographie (MAP) in Bamako, Mali. MAP provides free onsite access to AMP materials in Mali so that local community members with limited or no Internet access can view the scanned images.