When Anta Bu, an indigenous woman from Inner Mongolia, saw a digital photograph of her father, she was reunited with a face that had faded from her memory.
"It was the first photograph she'd seen of her father who had died when she was very young," Jocelyne Dudding, photographic collections manager at Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), told me. "She didn't recognise his face, but she recognized his name as the community had a record of writing people's names down."
The now-digitized photograph is one of 26,000 taken during fieldwork with the Evenki and Orochen tribes of Inner Mongolia. The images were taken by Russian ethnographer Sergei Shirokogoroff and his wife Elizabeth between 1912-1917, and by British anthropologist Ethel Lindgren and Norwegian photographer Oscar Mamem between 1929-1932.
The three-year initiative aims to digitize the entirety of the collection, and is being carried out between the MAA and research partners from ten different institutes in the UK, China, and Russia.
They are the oldest known existing photographs of the indigenous people from this area, according to Dudding. Over the last 18 months, the roughly 16,000 have been digitized. A selection of 70 images taken by Lindgren—the majority of which have never been seen before—are currently on show at an exhibition called "River Stars Reindeer." The show resulted from a "digital sharing project" where photographs digitized in the UK were brought back and shared with descendents of the photographs, researchers, and local museums.
Dudding described the project as a two-way process: the UK side provided high-resolution digital photographs to researchers in Inner Mongolia, who in turn shared the photographs with the indigenous tribes, who brought the details in the photographs to life by adding information.
"The exhibition is about the stories that came out of sharing those photographs," said Dudding. Though the researchers in the UK have possessed the technology to digitize the photographs for at least 20 years, Dudding emphasized that the most important part of the preservation process was this ability to share the photographs.
"So many people didn't have access to a computer or internet, but they now have computers that can show photos, which means we can actually share them with the communities," she said.
The researchers have also been collaborating with both museums and government institutions in the region in order to find the best way of displaying and sharing the photographs further.
"We want them to become meaningful objects rather than memories or just a hard drive of images that nobody knows how to use, or what to do with," explained Dudding.
The original negatives may never be returned directly to community members due to their fragility and uniqueness as historical objects and artifacts. However, Dudding said that the question of reclaiming the original was never brought up by the indigenous communities; nor would it be particularly advantageous. If returned, the fragility of the nitrate negatives would require them to be kept in the dark at certain temperatures and humidity levels within a museum or archive.
"Digital files can be printed many times, they can be seen on computers, they can be used on phone apps, and shared so much more widely than the originals ever could," said Dudding.
It is the names of people in the photographs, and details of the traditions depicted, that makes them particularly meaningful. "What is going back is the information that goes with the images [...] Ethel Lindgren was good at recording names and genealogies of people so there are actually some family descendents who can trace the photographs," she said.
"Young people are speaking with elderly people to find out what is happening in the photographs. A lot of things were lost in the Cultural Revolution (a socio-political movement that took place in the People's Republic of China from 1966 to 1976), so the photographs of costumes and practices that were lost are now being talked about again," she said.
Nasan Bayar, a social anthropologist from the Inner Mongolian University, told me over email that Lindgren's photographs also provided an unusual external perspective on the people and customs of the time.
Bayar explained how the 1920s and 30s were a crucial time in Inner Mongolian history, given the presence of various political powers, including the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and communist groups who involved themselves in Inner Mongolian regional affairs.
"These agents had their own agenda in Inner Mongolia. They documented the local cultures and traditions from their perspectives," said Bayar. "Lindgren, however, as an outsider without direct political interest in Inner Mongolia, investigated the local cultures and societies from an academic perspective. Her photos represented the local social life in a more objective way in a sense."
In order to ensure a balanced and democratic exhibition, the photographs on show at River Stars Reindeer were co-curated by both the researchers and members of the Orochen and Evenki peoples. The exhibition, said Dudding, directly reflects what is most important culturally, emotionally, and historically to them. Many of the archival photographs were selected by the community, and the exhibition also includes contemporary photographs of community members photographed looking at old photographs, or themselves photographing photographs from the past.
"We value the collection as a cultural heritage of ethnic groups such as Orochen, Evenki, Daur and Mongols in Inner Mongolia," Bayar said. "Although there are some written documents on the historical and cultural traditions of the groups, the photos show directly and vividly what they looked like in the 1920s and the 1930s."