Matrix researchers receive National Endowment for the Humanities grant to support photography archive project

June 27, 2023 - Emily Jodway

Researchers from Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences at Michigan State were recently awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a new archival project centered around preserving the photographic history of late-twentieth century Ghana. 

The Willis E. Bell Photographic Archive will build upon a larger NEH Preservation and Access project directed by Candace Keller, the Associate Director of Matrix and Director of the Archive of Malian Photography. Bell was an American photographer who emigrated to Ghana in 1957 and resided there until his death in 1999. 

The entirety of Bell’s photographic archive is kept in Ghana, with his collection of original prints having already been preserved by the Modern Endangered Archives program at UCLA. Now, along with UCLA and Ghana’s Mmofra Foundation, Matrix will be able to additionally catalog and make available thousands of photographic negatives that were previously stored away. 

“We are delighted that the NEH has awarded our project a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Grant to preserve, digitize and render globally accessible the important photographic negatives of American photographer Willis E. Bell,” Keller commented. “Building on the work we began last year with UCLA to digitize Bell’s original print collection, this means we will be able to preserve, protect, catalog and provide worldwide online access to Bell’s complete archive within the next two years.”

Bell arrived in Ghana at a pivotal moment in history, as the country had just become the first in Africa to achieve independence from colonialism. Bell integrated himself deep into Ghanaian society, from the uppermost levels of its government to everyday families in both rural and urban contexts. His diverse range and scope of photographs provided snapshots and photo essays of daily life and the modernization, industrialism and nationalism that was taking place at the time. He also took professional portraits of government leaders such as Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and even taught advertising photography in Accra, the country’s capital city. 

The archives will be digitized and made freely available worldwide via Kora, an open-source, database-driven digital repository and website managed by Matrix at MSU. Full access to the archives will provide researchers a wealth of information on African history, Ghanaian heritage and culture and the role the country played in global civil rights and Pan-African movements in the 1950s-70s. Matrix also hopes to educate and host workshops for local institutional leaders and scholars to expand and strengthen Ghana’s capacity in photography conservation, and to serve as a model for future projects in the region. 

Read more about past and present Matrix projects here.