Beginning as a modest effort in early 2009 to capture the historic moment of our first black president’s inauguration in photographs and interviews, the “Our Better History” project and the Historian’s Eye website have evolved into an expansive collection of some 1000+ photographs and an audio archive addressing Obama’s first term in office, the ’08 economic collapse and its fallout, two wars, the raucous politics of healthcare reform, the emergence of a new right-wing formation in opposition to Obama, the politics of immigration, Wall Street reform, street protests of every stripe, the BP oil spill, and the seeming escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide. Interviewees narrate and reflect upon their own personal histories as well, a dimension of the archive that now spans many decades and touches five continents.
Adopting its title from a passage in Obama’s inaugural address, the project seeks to trace the fate of “our better history,” as the nation faces unprecedented challenges with a president at the helm who is fully inspirational to some, palpably unnerving to others. In addition to catching this moment like a firefly in a mason jar, the project seeks to encourage a new relationship to history itself—a mental habit of apprehending the past in the present and history-in-the-making.
The geniuses whose inspiring ghosts hover most conspicuously over this project are Dorothea Lange and Studs Terkel. The wonderful thing about a camera, Lange once said, is that it can teach you how to see without a camera. One of the primary goals of this project is to learn to see anew and to enable clarity about our own historical moment. As for Terkel, no one perhaps has ever assembled as significant an archive of American voices as he. Though he is often thought of as preserving the experience of ordinary folks, in giving them a platform Terkel also provided access to a neglected realm of vernacular wisdom, analysis, theorizing, and understanding. The present gallery of interviewees differs from Terkel’s, including federal judges and high-end hedge fund managers alongside the carpenters, union organizers, immigrants, and unemployed office workers with whom Terkel would have been more familiar. But the aim is much the same: to document the experience of sweeping historical forces at street level; to render the diversity of worldviews and outlooks; to give voice to a vernacular analysis and wisdom that outshines our “punditry” more often than we are ever encouraged to imagine.
The momentum of our culture encourages very short memory and very quick judgment. We take our public discourse mostly in sound bites, and hence things that predate the latest news cycle are most often crowded out of our consideration. Historian’s Eye asks you to slow down; to look and to listen; to pay close attention and to notice; to entertain a variety of perspectives; to ask varied questions; to think about the current moment as possessing a deep history, and also to think of it as itself historical—futurity’s history. Above all, Historian’s Eye asks you to pitch in and to talk back.
Read more about the process and pedagogy behind Historian’s Eye in this interview with Social Text.