History is what the Present is made of


An Interview with Matthew Frye Jacobson



1. A Tense Moment of Hope and Danger


Michael Mandiberg: So tell us about the Historian’s Eye project…

Matthew Frye Jacobson: This started for me back in about 2007-2008. I was trying to think about different ways of getting intellectual work out in the world, continuous with all the writing I’ve done but in a different register. There was also an initiative on the part of graduate students at Yale to launch a Public Humanities program–which we now have done–and so I’m indebted to those conversations as well. I started thinking about documentary work, I did a kind of apprenticeship in film, and decided that I really had no talent there. I wasn’t going to be able to develop the work independently in film the way that I wanted to. But while I was doing that, I fell in love with the audio track. And so I started working with sound and thinking about what was possible. I love radio documentary. It’s a form that isn’t appreciated enough in the United States. There are places in the world where, if you say you’re doing documentary work, the assumption is you’re doing radio. Not so, here. But I started playing around with images and sound and exploring what you could do with still photography and digital audio as a kind of tandem.

The first experiment was around the inauguration. I just wanted to catch that day. We went down to D.C. the day before, we interviewed people on the train on the way down, interviewed people in Harlem before we left, and then–I was working with another documentarian, Renee Athay, the person who had taught me film, we were still working together at that point. We rode the train down, interviewed people, spent the day on the Mall just shooting pictures and interviewing. That was going to be a self-contained project, as far as I was concerned. It was really just going to be a gallery of voices and images devoted to that historic day. But then “the Obama moment” just got more and more interesting, and in some ways, it was more and more disturbing as time went by. So I stayed with it. And it’s now going on two and a half years that I’ve been continuing to interview all kinds of people, from unemployed workers, unemployed office workers, carpenters, union organizers at one end of the spectrum, and federal judges, hedge fund managers, and investment bankers at the other end of the spectrum, and many different kinds of people in between. The guiding question of the project is, “what does this historical moment look like to you?”

Tavia Nyong’o: The website is called historian’s eye, but it’s also very much about the historian’s ear. What do you listen for when you conduct these interviews? It’s such a variety of people, ranging from those who speak self-consciously about politics, history, etc, to those who resist, at least initially (I’m thinking of Mayalan Keita-Brown for instance) treading into that territory. Do you strive for a single way of consistent of listening, or do you let yourself adapt to the particular context?

MFJ: I really try to figure out what’s going to work best between us–I try to figure out the chemistry as quickly as I can, and push that as far as I can. I always start with the autobiographical sketch. Those are always interesting–and often surprising, like when Lesley Karsten DiNicola turned out to be the daughter of one of the Nuremberg lawyers–but it also gives me a chance to establish some rapport, to figure out what kind of talker they’re going to be, but also to establish myself as a listener. My first few questions–always bouncing off of something the other person has said–are really an occasion to win a little trust. Careful listening and genuine curiosity go a long way. There are always particular things I want to get to in an interview, but in the long run that’s less than 30% of the gig. The most important thing is the rapport and rhythm that spontaneously develop between us, because that’s what’ll get us into the most interesting places. Interesting personally, interesting in terms of openness and honest reflection, and therefore interesting historically, too.

And so people narrate their lives–that part of the archive is fascinating, because it’s become quite deep. That part of the archive spans many decades and touches many continents. But for the most part the interviews are given over to people’s interpretations and experiences of the present moment.

And then I’ve been traveling around–I’ve been to something like 28 or 30 different states at this point– shooting pictures that I think capture something important about what’s going on. So now it’s a project not just about Obama, but it’s about the backlash against Obama, it’s about the Tea Party, it’s about the economic collapse, it’s about the oil spill, the wars, the anti-Muslim agitation. It still feels like a unique moment to me, historically speaking. It feels like a moment in which the country is about to deliver–at any second we could deliver up our very best or our very worst. It feels like that kind of tense moment of hope and danger. The archive is meant to build materials that capture that aspect of this moment. But then it’s also meant to be a pedagogical tool, to help teachers help their students to think historically about the present, really. To think about history as what the present is made of. To think about the present as having a deep history of its own, but also being history in the making.

2. Crowd-sourcing, Curating and

TN: Is the site still at the if-you-build-it-they-will-come stage? Or do you have examples of people using it?


MFJ: Ultimately there’s also a crowd-sourcing and a wiki aspect to the project. I’m hoping that over time this gets traction, and not only will more and more people contribute materials to the archive, but that more and more teachers at various levels will contribute either ideas about how to use it, or how they have used it, assignment ideas or samples of student work.  I’m hoping it will become a tool for an ongoing critical conversation.


I’ve been using it in my own teaching this semester. But I’ve also been presenting it–the way I’ve financed the fieldwork itself is by presenting the site at different venues across the country. Universities have been paying me to travel, basically; I go and I give the talk, but I stay wherever it is–San Diego, L.A., Seattle–and try to spend an extra couple days on the ground doing fieldwork there. That’s how I’ve financed it. But in those conversations I’ve made a lot of connections with people who now have been introduced to the site and are using it in their own classrooms. So this semester is the test. A lot of people across the country are using it right now, and I’ve gotten a few things contributed that people have sent in. But the verdict is still out. I haven’t heard much back from the people who are using it in their classrooms yet.


TN: What are the particular crowd-sourcing capacities that you have on the site?


MFJ: On the home page there’s a tab with the word “participate,” and it gives you instructions in case you wanted to submit something. For the moment, that’s the gallery of submitted materials. There’s not a ton up there yet, but there are a few things–some great photographs from the Wisconsin protests, for example. Then there’s a tab for “courses,”–it has some teaching ideas, different ways you might use this material in the classroom. But it really is just waiting for–again, it offers instructions: if you’re a teacher, if you’re using this site, here’s how you can submit your own ideas, your own experiences, your own assignment ideas, samples of student work. That hasn’t taken off yet, but it’s in place. There’s a tab for “video.” I’m not doing video myself, but I’m assuming that would be the chosen medium for a lot of students, once they get involved. So that’s up there as a placeholder as well–a gallery in waiting. We made a slide show of stills just to keep the space there, but that awaits its authors.


MM: What does it mean to you to have other voices or other contributors to it, versus it being a trail of your own process?


MFJ: That’s interesting. I think that it’s two things. I think that, more than anything, it gets at the pedagogical aims of the site. It’s really about looking and seeing and listening and noticing, and thinking historically in a new way. So when someone sends me an image taken with their cell phone, for instance, it’s just a small sign that somebody out there is getting it. Someone thought–you know, they saw this mural on a wall, in an alley in Boston, and thought of Historian’s Eye and sent it to me. So it’s affirming in that sense. I think in the longer run, as the archive gets bigger, as the volume of contribution grows, I think then it becomes something different. It’s like, I am the “Historian,” at the moment, it’s my “Eye.” What I’m trying to do is think more generically about the historian’s eye, and what it means to look historically and to see historically. But as more back-and-forth conversation starts to take shape on the site, then on some philosophical plane the site turns into something that it isn’t quite yet. It stops being, simply, one person’s project, and it becomes something much more dynamic, something whose potential I think is much greater–not only the archival potential, but the intellectual potential and the interpretive potential.


One of the biggest methodological questions that keeps coming at me is: Will I do any writing for the site? And I’ve resisted that so far. I like the open-endedness of the site, I like it being an archive and not an argument. People can look at and make sense of it themselves, and find their way through it, from images to voices and back again. A lot of people are urging me to give it more of a framework, though.


MM: Yeah, let me ask that question a slightly different way. Rather than, Are you going to do any writing?, Are you going to do any curating?


MFJ: Yes. Yes. That’s a different–


MM: It is a different question. But it’s the same question.


MFJ: Well, it’s a variation of the
question. So, curating, yes. And the only reason that hasn’t been
done yet is because I haven’t had time. Its been consuming enough
getting it to the point that it is.


MM: What’s amazing about it is how much is there. How many photographs are there?


MFJ: I’ve taken over 15,000, and i think we have almost 2,000 up on the site–1,500 at the very least.


MM: And how many interviews?


MFJ: I know that I’ve done close to fifty, but not nearly that many are posted. We have twenty or so raw interviews posted–that’s about twenty hours of audio. And then we have twenty-five edited clips–you know, five or ten minutes on a certain topic–and we have about twenty full transcripts posted now. [Ed. Note. In the time since the interview, Jacobson and his tech support team have caught up with some of their backlog, and so the volume of material is now significantly higher.]


MM: It’s a lot. 2,000 is overwhelming, in an amazing way. I mean that’s part of the effect of photographing all of these stories and all of these signs and all of these people. But I wonder what happens when you start to trace some of those trails.


MFJ: One of the things that has struck me again and again is that things that I really connect with and that are really provocative to me or seem to open up different ways of thinking, are not necessarily the things that strike other people at all. And they might respond to things that have no particular power to me; they’ll say, Oh man, that picture of the Chinga la Migra! sign is really amazing! So, I don’t want to foreclose those possibilities by heavy-handed framing, but I do need to go through and–curating is a perfect word. Just provide enough captions to identify things better than they are right now, help people make sense of what it is they’re seeing–at least where it was from, when it was, what was the occasion. And then maybe brief editorial head notes for the interviews, so people have a sense of what they will find if they take the time to listen. That’s the next step, and its something we’ll be doing in the coming months. [Ed. Note. Since the interview was conducted, some of this editorial work has been completed.]


The next step after that, which I’m not sure I’m going to be taking–yet, anyway–would be more interpretive writing about what I think I’ve seen as I’ve been traveling around. And there are a couple different dimensions to that. A lot of people are interested–there’s a kind of road trip dimension to this that could be pretty interesting. More pressing to me is the interpretive work–there are certain themes that run through the archive that I think are really important. One is the anti-Muslim theme. And not just what’s going on in New York, but what’s going on across the country. That’s something I really want to write about at some point. But I feel more pressed at the moment to do the curating.


TN: One potential curatorial model to look at might be the arts organization Visual AIDS which has a web gallery on its homepage that is updated monthly, and they invite guest curators to select the gallery from their online database of work.


MM: Conversely, there’s an organization called Rhizome.org, which is the new media wing of the New Museum. And Rhizome has an archive of a lot of work–it’s called ArtBase. And anyone who is a member of the community can curate a show from the ArtBase. And the ones that are particularly good get noticed.


MFJ: That’s a great idea. I love that model. It’s up in a prominent way for a period of time and then it just becomes another gallery and gets pulled back… That’s fantastic. That’s very much in the spirit of this project. And also it’s the kind of thing that would help people decipher the uses of the site in a way that would make it more legible.

3. The Internet as commons

TN: Have you thought about Creative Commons, and/or sharing and re-publishing your material elsewhere on the web?

MFJ: Well, so far, I have much more apparatus in place for permissions when it comes to the subjects–especially the interviewees. The materials that have been submitted–they’re always attributed, it’s a kind of working understanding. I don’t have a release for submissions. The understanding has been, they’re submitting for this site and nothing else. And if anyone were to contact me about a particular image, then I would direct them to the contributor. But I’m not going to do anything other than simply post them on the site.

TN: Its an interesting question, because its one we’ve debated a lot on the Social Text website.

MFJ: So where have you arrived on those questions?

TN: Well we have arrived at a Creative Commons license on the site, which we describe on our Permissions page. So if something is republished, we ask that both the author and the site be acknowledged but otherwise grant in advance permission for free reproduction. We’ve left open the possibility that individuals could ask for their rights to be reserved, but so far no one has.

MM: One of the reasons why I’m glad you brought that up and I think it’s relevant is that these are a set of sort of ground rules, that are often useful when you talk about collaboration. Because what is interesting is in the conversation we’ve been talking about the contributions, and you’ve used the word crowd-sourcing. There’s an interesting continuum between crowd-sourcing, contributions and collaborations. And so getting from here to there often requires those kinds of ground-rules. It is also about infrastructure too, a kind of infrastructure. I guess, as one of the things you’re talking about…

MFJ: And it’s further complicated when you’re sitting astride several disciplines at once. Just earlier today I was in a conversation with a group of anthropologists and ethnographers about this. And their presumptions about… just basic aspects of curating, really, are completely different than a historian’s. The presumptions about how you position yourself, how you describe your method, how you justify your method, how much you reveal about your positionality. It’s a totally different apparatus that’s expected among ethnographers versus oral historians. I don’t particularly consider myself either one, but clearly what I’m doing is related to both, and I’ve taken some inspiration from both. So it raises complicated questions, when it gets down to protocol.

4. Photography and history

TN: How do you see the project as distinct from oral history?

MFJ: Well it is oral history, except it’s about the present. So people do end up talking–you know, they narrate an arc of time, depending on who they are and what interests them and how old they are and all that. But ultimately, it’s their experience of contemporary America that I’m trying to get at. So, it’s complicated, because that in itself distinguishes it from most oral history. On the other hand, I’m trying to conduct the interviews in such a way that it really does matter that I am a historian. I’m trying to bring that to bear, in terms of the kinds of questions I’m asking, and how I’m probing, and how I’m trying to urge their elaborations. I’m not doing it the way a journalist might–I don’t think. At least when I’m working well, it really does matter that I’m a historian. In that sense it is very closely aligned with oral history; and also, the archive that I have in mind, I’m hoping will be usable and interesting 30 years from now, 50 years from now, in a historical way. So the ethos of the project is completely historical.

MM: It’s interesting that Tavia mentions oral history, because from my perspective the closest analog is documentary photography. And in a way there are almost two projects. [MFJ: Right. There are, there are.] I guess there’s two questions there: How do you see the relationship between what are kind of two very different projects–images and the text. And also, How do you see it in relationship to the history of photography?

MFJ: Well it’s definitely two different skill sets, and there’s been two different learning curves. On the other hand–this is the kind of thing that I don’t think is apparent at all the way the site is set up now without any commentary from me. But as I look at it, it’s easy for me to see all kinds of conversations going on between the image galleries and the audio files. Because there are things that people said to me in interviews that inspired me to capture certain kinds of images, right? There’s an interview with this unemployed woman in New York, for example–she’s talking about the experience of being unemployed in 2009-2010. She’s talking about how lonely it is, and how we have this sense that in the 30s there were just droves of people, so it was very much a collective experience. She’s talking about now how it’s just you and your computer–you’re online applying for jobs, you’re online applying for aid, you’re by yourself. And it’s so atomizing. She said the only kind of public markers in public space that really begin to convey the scale of the devastation are the “Space Available” signs that you see in storefronts all over the city. As soon as she said that to me, that’s when I started taking those pictures. There’s a whole gallery–hundreds of pictures–“Space Available.”

MM: Yeah. I listened to that interview. And all of a sudden, I got it before, but I really got it then.

MFJ: But there are a lot of things like that that are laced through the archive. And you really have to spend some time before you get to those.

MM: The name, Historian’s Eye, I’m assuming–I read it as coming from John Szarkowski’s Photographer’s Eye. Which is a key essay in the history of photography. One of the things that essay establishes is sort of the truth claim of photography. In particular, looking back at documentary evidence and the WPA photographers. How do you relate to this, and where do you see this notion of the truth claim? Is this something that is important to you, the sort of established truth of the photograph? Especially given the breakdown of the photograph’s ability to claim to tell the truth.

MFJ: No I don’t believe in it, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s interesting. I never was consciously bouncing off of that essay when I came up with Historian’s Eye–although that was somewhere in there, because I’ve read it and I’ve thought a lot about that generation of photographers, who I still find really inspiring. One of the things, though, that has come up a lot with people in conversations when I’m presenting the work–is the choice to print everything in black and white rather than color. [MM: That was my follow-up question! (laughs)] And I can argue it either way; I can explain my thinking on this. I think whichever route you take is going to be problematic, because photography’s seeming and actual relationship to “reality” is problematic. That’s the answer to your truth-claim question. I mean, I don’t think these images represent any kind of unshakable, immutable reality. But I do think that they communicate something, in that they do represent something.

The black and white really was meant–there are a couple dimensions to it. One is that I just felt that in this cultural environment, where people are bombarded by so many mediated images in a day–most Americans have access to more mediated images in a year than Dorothea Lange saw in her lifetime, right? It’s just constant. Sides of buses, telephone booths, news stands, the front of people’s t-shirts, glossy magazines… So I thought that to stand a chance in this environment, a photograph, if it’s in black and white, is already announcing something about the kind of attention that its asking for. And I thought that anything I could do to get people to pause over the images would work in my favor. And the black and white decision is one of those things. And similar aesthetic decisions that I’ve made go along with that. I think it was Paul Strand who said, you have to pay attention to these things, even if you’re a documentarian, or else you produce photographs that exhaust themselves on the first look.  You know, now, I’ve had people who’ve been appalled by that. They say, “color is data. How can you reduce data if what you’re after is…”

MM: Yeah, you’re reducing data to aesthetics… in a way. But, one of the things that it seems like to me that it triggers, is all of these references to these moments you’re talking about. So it’s actually an effective…

MFJ: Well it mobilizes your historical thinking, because we’re used to seeing historical photographs in black and white.

MM: Yeah.

MJ: I don’t know that I can defend that…

MM: Right. Cause then it immediately flips back over to questions of nostalgia.

MFJ: Although…well, that’s interesting. But look, I could have made the opposite decision, and I could defend that as well and have as elaborate a justification, and it would still be problematic. I feel completely comfortable with this. I understand why I’m doing it this way, it makes sense to me, it sits right with me. And it does justice to the mood that I’ve experienced in my travels, in a way that seems worth preserving. Or worth communicating, if I can. “Somber beauty,” I suppose, is how I would articulate the aesthetic aspiration of the site; and “somber beauty” is an apt description of much of what I’ve seen, as I’ve driven around Eastern Pennsylvania or San Antonio or Washington state, or as I’ve talked to various people about their experience of these times.

The spirit of the site is, let’s notice in a different way, let’s listen in a different way, let’s get beyond the one-minute sound bite–if that! The ten-second sound bite. Let’s listen to somebody talk for an hour about being unemployed, right? And that’s worth doing. I really feel that. In my bones, I feel that.

5. History of the Present

MM: How does this reflect your process. Are you just taking what you’ve always been doing and just sort of putting it in a place that’s more visible? Or has this changed it in some way?

MFJ: There are really powerful continuities. You know, obviously, the archive that I’m working from is different. The kind of mode of communication is different. But a lot of the decision-making is very similar to all the work that I’ve done before. The best example I can think of–I don’t know if you saw these–but the images of the really, really horrid anti-Muslim demonstration downtown, right near Park 51.


My decision to go there, I would say, came right out of the very same place in my brain that Whiteness of a Different Color came out of. It was a decision that was based on my own sense of the kind of depth of these patterns of hatred and entitlement in American political culture. And that whatever was going to happen downtown that day, was going to be something that runs really deep. This was not just a weird, oddball event that was taking place. So at that level, I think there is a tremendous continuity between the work I’m doing for this and the work I’ve done before.

The education for me, and the way that my thinking has changed–and this really does have everything to do with that phrase Historian’s Eye. I think the first time I ever really articulated it for myself was when I spent a couple of days in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and I got some photographs of the old abandoned steel works. There was something about that experience that was awe-inspiring to me. I don’t know if you have been there, but it’s the closest thing in North America that I’ve ever seen to someplace like the Roman Colosseum. It sounds crazy, but it’s just so awesome–I mean awesome in the biblical sense. You are in awe, I mean the thing is just enormous! And it’s so silent. And the effect is that you really feel the passing of a whole way of life. It’s like you feel the ghosts there, you know? So it was a place that got me into a very particular kind of reverie. And one of the things that happened to me in the couple of days that I was in that town was that I started to cultivate an eye for the way you can see different historical layers–its almost archeological–you can see different layers of distress, for example, in the landscape. So in Bethlehem you can see the forty-year layer of post-industrial decline; and then you can see the fifteen- or twenty-year layer of post plant closings. And then on top of that you can see the post-2008 layer in store closures. And every place you go–in New Orleans its pre-Katrina, post-Katrina–every place has its own specificities, but there is a way that it’s almost like seeing the strata in a geological formation.




Around the time I started seeing in that way was when Historian’s Eye occurred to me as what this project should be called. There’s a really close connection between those observations and that kind of conceptualization. I’ve built on that and incorporated it into my thinking as a historian, but that’s something that emerged organically from this fieldwork. I could have written five more books without ever arriving at that particular way of seeing and thinking.

TN: Part of what I think the project is doing is inviting people to perceive their present as an historical moment. As you’ve been conducting the interviews, have you encountered any surprising twists on what people perceive to be historical about the present, or about their experience of life, as such? Which may be distinct from what you as an historian think of as historical?

MFJ: There are two things that are interesting about it. One is the way it’s been confirmed and reconfirmed–and I’ve talked to a lot of different kinds of people at this point–that people are experiencing this moment in much the way that I am: as moment of hope and danger. And you know, one person’s hope is another person’s danger, right? So you can see they aren’t always fearing or applauding the same things, specifically, but they are experiencing the same kind of doubleness in this historical moment–that America sits at a fork in the road that is really portentous and kind of heavy. And I hear that articulated in a million different ways, across the spectrum. So there is a commonality in feeling that this is a very special moment.

But the other thing that is striking is, if you just asked someone, say, “The phrase ‘our current moment’ might mean a lot of things. What does it mean to you?” You get a lot of different answers to that question. And that’s fascinating, too. People feel the heaviness of the moment, but they might choose to talk about completely different things. So, I asked a hedge fund manager, and his first answer was all about global warming–which was not what I was expecting at all. And it was totally sincere and it made sense and it was interesting. But that was his first response, and it was only later that he got into the economic collapse. And another thing–and this, for me, started in the run-up to the election, but especially that period between Election Day and Inauguration–the sense that Obama’s election, almost regardless of what his presidency was going to turn out to be, the election itself was something so momentous that it suddenly made the last couple of decades look different, in hindsight. It poses some really interesting problems for historians to think about–the best metaphor I’ve heard, you know, geologists–again, another geology metaphor–but geologists talk about how underneath the river, the bedrock is moving. And there’s a sense that, suddenly the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s… Who knew, right? That the bedrock had actually been moving under there, while the surfaces of racialized relations in the U.S.–the Reagan years, the Clinton years, the Bush years–had looked so bleak. And that we really only knew our full history the minute Obama was elected. Suddenly we could turn around and survey the topography of those decades in a different way. And still, I feel compelled by the interpretive and analytic problems that that raises for historians. Obviously, our problems are still very much with us–just look at the racialized backlash against Obama. But something else was happening too, that we couldn’t know until 2008.

One of the things that has made this work so interesting to me and that has–well, frankly, as time goes on, “our current moment” just gets more and more depressing… You know, you go back and listen to some of the interviews I did on Inauguration Day and it seems so long ago! It seems like it was a lifetime ago, right? My own sense of hope has waned, has fallen off, and I know a lot of other people’s has too. That’s part of the archive now.

But one of the things that’s really made this work be not merely depressing, is that people are so interesting, and so brilliant, and so funny, and so resilient. The interviews contain something important about people’s capacity to make sense of and interpret huge historical or sociological tectonics, and to say brilliant, funny things even in hardship. I’m the prime beneficiary of that at the moment–I’m grateful for the experience–but maybe that’s something that can be usable in interpretive ways much later on.


Michael Mandiberg

Michael Mandiberg is an interdisciplinary artist who created Print Wikipedia, edited The Social Media Reader (NYU Press), founded the New York Arts Practicum, and co-founded the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Editathons. Mandiberg is professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island, CUNY and Doctoral Faculty at The Graduate Center, CUNY.