Thursday, 14 January 2016

What happens to our photographs when we shuffle off this mortal coil?

Last year I posted a reflection on the need for an archive of photographs. As far as I know, there has been no progress on this issue and it is very difficult to see how best to generate a debate that leads to action.

Perhaps there is no real need for huge numbers of photos of common species; especially if they are not accompanied by details of where and when taken? But, photographs accompanied by a record of where and when they were taken start to become a very important biological archive. Some may be instantly identifiable but others will not. Do we really understand the true potential of photographic recording? I think not, apart from a few noteworthy exceptions - the data assembled by iRecord, iSpot and by some recording schemes that have committed to photo identification as part of their repertoire.

Amongst dipterists I detect two greatly differing camps. One is broadly receptive of the role that photography can play in generating both interest and data. Others cannot see the point. It is not uncommon to hear the comment that so little can be identified that it is not worth bothering. I agree that in general some families will be far too difficult to do from photos, but then there remains the taxonomic conundrum - should we be wedded to the idea that the only way animals (or plants) can be identified is from specimens? What I have learned from hoverflies is that many animals have subtle but important differences in life that one cannot seen in a preserved specimen (and vice-versa). Learning to explain why a photo is or is not a particular species/family is an immensely useful process as it helps the taxonomist understand how to convey information that might be sufficient to get people off the ground.

I therefore think there is an urgent need for the community of recording scheme organisers to develop a wider understanding of what can and cannot be done from photos. I have been trying to do so for hoverflies for the past six or seven years and am now pretty clear about its potential (for hovers). It is considerable but there are limitations that make traditional collection of specimens a continuing necessity. What I also start to realise is that we might be able to develop keys that help the photographic recording community improve their accuracy. I have some way to go before trying to put these ideas into action, but I do wish I had been armed with that information before we wrote the WILDGuide.

As with all taxonomic revision the important issue is to have access to lots of material - and that is what photographers are generating. These photos are the equivalent of voucher specimens but are possibly easier to house (at least in terms of space). Unlike museum specimens Anthrenus will not be a problem, but I expect long-term issues such as backward file compatibility and maybe file corruption may strike.

I am in no position to do much more than to champion the potential merits of more recording schemes working with photographic recorders to improve our knowledge of what really can and cannot be done (assuming the photos are sharp and of good resolution). I believe we need to be thinking in a far broader way about photographic recording. It is not just a question of getting more people involved in taking photographs. iSpot, iRecord and various Facebook pages have shown how to generate interest. The bigger issue is how to retain and grow that interest in conjunction with growing skills amongst both photographers. I know of recorders who would engage, but who get disillusioned because there is a lack of engagement - that is a huge pity because there is an untapped constituency of support to engage with.

In this respect we need a much wider spectrum of specialists to engage with photographers. We also need to look at photographs in the same way as many of us would for traditional specimen-based recording.  When I start to deal with an unfamiliar family I store up specimens until I can start to put pieces of the jigsaw together. The same holds for photographs; hence the need to develop archival systems that can be used by coming generations of taxonomists. Perhaps there would be a need to restrict storage to a group of invited photographers? Not all photos one sees are necessarily of a standard that might be useful in such studies, but I can think of the work of maybe 30 photographers that is quite exceptional and ought to be recognised by creating such an archive. I am also aware of several who wonder what will happen to their photos and how to deal with this legacy. Perhaps it is time for an initiative to take this aspect of biological recording and taxonomy into the 21st Century?


  1. The photographic archive you refer to does exist.

    Wikimedia is another long-term photography archive

    I think you also need to distinguish between photograph and snapshots. A photograph shows the fly in all its glory and detail. A snapshot is just one of those images you can't identify from! I suggest a lot of the difference between the two camps of dipterists is that they're thinking of the different types of images.

    There's also a third category: close-ups of details - eg third tibia - where the photos are only useful if you know what body-part they depict.

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