Take a picture, it’ll last longer: Photo archiving as a love letter to our Island Home

Since beginning my work with the Société, I’ve had the pleasure of delving into their extensive photo archive on a regular basis. I went in search of photos I could share on the organisation’s social media platforms, but in the process, I ended up finding so much more: a renewed appreciation for my Island home of Jersey.

140,000 records, 15,000 portraits of named individuals, 10 local photographer collections all in one, digitally accessible archive.

The Société Jersiaise’s Photo Archive (SJPA) was established in 1992 to preserve and manage the vast photographic collections held by the Société’s Library. Although it was established in the 90’s, the Archive contains photographs dating back to as early as the 1840’s and continues the legacy of Emile Guiton, a photographer and Société member, who started the initial collections back in the 1920’s.

In a modern era where ‘content is king’ and we are regularly oversaturated with imagery of all kinds, one could argue that the role of the still image has become a little underappreciated. But housed in the collections of the photo archive are thousands of negatives and photographs which took far more than tapping a button on an iPhone to capture. These historic photographers took pains to document their surroundings at a time when taking and developing photographs was a more time-consuming labour of love than it is in 2024.

This isn’t to say that photography isn’t still a highly skilled and impactful art form, but rather the relative scarcity of photo technology in the 1840s as opposed to now imbues the archived photographs with something of an extraordinary quality.

So, what does it really mean to have these snapshots of Island life through the centuries, so carefully catalogued and preserved for posterity?

To answer this question, I could quote the Universal Declaration on Archives which stated:

“Archives record decisions, actions and memories. Archives are a unique and irreplaceable heritage passed from one generation to another. Archives are managed from creation to preserve their value and meaning. They are authoritative sources of information underpinning accountable and transparent administrative actions. They play an essential role in the development of societies by safeguarding and contributing to individual and community memory.

“Open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life.”

And, perhaps less eloquently and a little more abstract than this, I can share with you some of my favourite images from my deep dives into the archive why they have made me think about Jersey’s ‘Temps Passé’ and indeed my own relationship with the Island a little differently.

Of course, the power of photography certainly lies in the fact that there is something deeply moving about seeing historical moments as they’re being experienced. Being able to connect with the emotions of real Islanders as – for example – they celebrate the Liberation of the Island from Occupation, shifts the poignancy of that event into even sharper focus.

And on a far more banal note, the discovery that people still took pictures of their pets dressed in funny clothing back in 1906 makes me relate to that era so much more!

I grew up in St. Helier and being able to visualise what corners of town used to look like so that I can acknowledge how much has changed over the years when I come home is such a gift. It’s like feeling a nostalgia for an era I never experienced first-hand but can somehow connect with through these photographs.

As a writer, there’s also a creative element to my fascination with the images housed by the Photo Archive. Certain photos make me wonder: ‘Who are these people? What are they thinking about? What’s their story?’

Overall, these photos do of course give insights into challenging times in the Island’s history, but they also unlock something which, for me, was far more unexpected: the silliness, playfulness, joy and community spirit of our Island home throughout history.

Now, when I’m in Jersey and I encounter the same vista captured by a photographer almost 200 years ago, I feel more connected with the Island and my small part in its ongoing, unfurling heritage.

To browse the photo archive yourself for free, click here. And to support the vital work of the Photo Archive and the Société more broadly, consider signing up for a membership or making a donation if you can.

Written by Martha Macdonald

In this series, Freelance Writer Martha MacDonald will delve into the archives and meet with the researchers, sample the Sections and celebrate all that the Société brings to our Island.