Whose history is it?

A few months ago I had a heated discussion via instant messenger with a friend about Johannesburg. One thing he said that really annoyed me was something along the lines of Joburg not being old enough to be historically worthy. Unfortunately I had one of those moments when my really clever response came hours after the conversation.

History and historical worthiness is not about time or size, it is about significance – and that significance depends on who you talk to. Luckily in today’s technologically abundant world it is easier for people to document their history – they don’t have to wait for a historian or politician to decide it is worthy.

While I was in Poland my aunt and uncle really wanted me to go and photograph some of the old buildings and traditional wooden houses that are still standing (but barely) in their city Pabianice. Most of them are being demolished, or in the final stages of decay – in spite of the fact that many people still live in them.

I had never really thought about Pabianice in historical terms – of course every city has a history in a linear passing-of-time kind of way, but when a country has cities like Krakow or Gdansk, it becomes easy to overlook the histories of smaller, less beautiful, less poetic cities.

It reminded me of an important lesson for photographers – and even writers – not to accept the face value and not to make assumptions about what it is significant or important.

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