That is National Geographic photo archivist Bill Bronner in a lovely super short film from the magazine about his job. In an accompanying article, Kathryn Carlson writes about meeting him and the impact one of his photos had on her:
The first time I went downstairs to film Bill for this video, he was busy searching for old photos about South Africa, at the request of a magazine editor. One of the unpublished images he pulled has stuck with me. It was taken during the apartheid era at Christmas time, and it showed dozens of white men standing along a pool's edge, tossing money into the water where black mine workers were fighting for their Christmas bonuses. It was a simple photograph, but it thrust me into the small, yet appalling moments of racism. There were no broken bones, no starving children, no corrupt cops. But there was degradation. There was merciless humor. There was struggle, strength, pride, hope, pain, entitlement, hate. That photo showed me apartheid. And Bill remembers that image, and those people, and the photographer every single day. He pays homage to their lives by keeping these moments safe in his memory, and sharing them with anyone who wants to learn.
In another life, I'm sure I was an archivist. So much of what I love is connected to the past and the truths I pursue, both in what I write and in how I live, are connected to the past. Right now I have hundreds of photographs spread out in my office tracing my Irish American family back over 100 years, my French Canadian one back to my father's childhood.
Last week, I was working (finally) on my own photo albums.
For my next book (still horribly untitled - nothing fits!), I have been looking both at the reports of a long dead scientist/mountain climber and the work of a pilot who filled the map through a critical mountain pass and then later disappeared on a final flight. (The irony that he filled in the map for everyone else only to lose himself less than a year later boggles my mind if I dwell on it.)
In his "cartographic" memoir, In the Memory of the Map, Christopher Norment writes of his lifelong love of maps. It was here that I found the wonderful quote from George Eliot about "the unmapped country within us." (I have not read much Eliot at all and must rectify that.)
Norment also quotes Michael Ondaatje: "All that I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps." Norment himself is fascinated with unmapped terrain, "a vanished world". He writes, "Mapping the last of the lost and lonely places would be more than a simple act of filling in a blank space; it would be a potent symbol, an admission that there are personal and collective limits on our options."
It's a very interesting book and I enjoyed reading it. But at the end of the day, with a life that has been so dominated by road maps and aircraft sectionals (aviation maps), I have come to treasure a solid, accurate map. I don't see romance in unmapped places but rather a world to get lost in - a place to disappear without a trace.
I don't like disappearing.
On my office wall is a family tree, the country of where I come from going back to 1860. I have names, places, photographs. I have a record of loves and lives and hopes and dreams that crossed an ocean.
So many things make a map, so many people. I never made it as a professional archivist but in my own world, it is what I am on every level. It is, my truest self.