May 12

On the Digital Frontier in Bosnia

Thursday, May 12, 2016 10:58 PM

By

Working in an archive, one can sometimes make unexpected discoveries in the materials that have accumulated over the course of years. Hidden by the sheer volume of materials, or locked away in a forgotten drawer, we have heard over the years of spectacular discoveries like original compositions by Mozart, or important letters about Abraham Lincoln.

And oftentimes these “discoveries” are hidden in plain sight, much like Edgar Allen Poe’s Purloined Letter. Sitting on a shelf in the Naval Institute’s Library is a remarkable set of digital images on CDs from the Bosnian War, produced by the Department of Defense’s Joint Combat Camera Center (DoDJCC) in 1998. What makes them so special is not only are they still viewable and usable after nearly twenty years of sitting passively on a shelf, but many are also born-digital images — that is, images created by a digital camera, and not scanned from film or a photographic print.

Airman First Class Michelle Leonard, 1st Combat Camera Squadron, Charleston, South Carolina, deployed to Sarajevo, photographs the war-torn city with an early digital camera.

Airman First Class Michelle Leonard, USAF, deployed to Sarajevo, photographs the war-torn city with a digital camera during Operation Joint Guard in 1997. The picture itself is a digital image from a DodJCC 1998 CD.

The digital camera pictured above was first introduced in 1994; built essentially in a film camera’s body it took pictures up to a resolution of 1.5 megapixels — and it cost over $30,000. By comparison, one can purchase a camera today with a resolution of 24 megapixels for a little over $500. But these clunky digital cameras captured many of the images of the NATO Intervention Bosnia and other events of the 1990s and form much of the visual record of that war.

A U.S. Navy A-6E "Intruder" from the "Blue Blasters" of Attack Squadron Three Four (VA-34), performs an in-flight refueling with a French Navy "Super Etendard" fighter bombers, while operating in the western Mediterranean Sea, June 19, 1996. The Intruder was flying from the deck of the U. S. Navy’s nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73), while the Super Etendard was operating from the French aircraft carrier Clememceau. The two carriers were conducting a passing exercise, with included their respective air wings. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Brent Phillips. From a 1997 JCCS CD.

A U.S. Navy A-6E Intruder from the “Blue Blasters” of VA-34 performs an in-flight refueling with a French Navy Super Etendard fighter bombers, while operating in the western Mediterranean Sea, June 19, 1996. The Intruder was flying from the deck of USS George Washington (CVN-73), while the Super Etendard was operating from the French aircraft carrier Clememceau. The two carriers were conducting a passing exercise, with included their respective air wings. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Brent Phillips. From a 1997 DodJCC CD.

1994 is not all that long ago, relatively speaking, bit for digital data, it is practically an age removed. Academics and information professionals have been actively working to preserve the materials created and used in the digital realm since the early 1990s. The same year that the DoDJCCC released the CDs with these images of the Bosnian War, Professor Margaret Hedstrom called digital preservation a “time bomb” for digital libraries [.pdf]. As she eloquently noted, digital materials like those on a CD are prone to catastrophic failure.

960223-A-3331-A-002 Soldier from Delta Company, 215th Infantry division detached to 4-67 Armor Division out Schweinfurt, Germany, inspects a Bosnian Soldier moving back into the town of ODZAK, Bosnia-Hezergovina. Photo by: SGT Alejandro, 55th Signal Company Combat Camera

This image of a U.S. Army soldier inspecting a Bosnian man shows signs of deterioration — note the blue lines running across in parts.

Paper photographs do decay, but they can last for decades without any attention. But a CD? If it starts to deteriorate, you can usually kiss the data goodbye.

This image of USS America together with the Russian Sovremennyy-class destroyer Admiral Ushakov from one of the CDs illustrates what can happen as a digital image file degrades over time.

This corrupted image of USS America together with the Russian Sovremennyy-class destroyer Admiral Ushakov from one of the DodJCC CDs illustrates what can happen as a digital image file degrades over time — so-called “bit rot.”

But even more than that, one has to worry about format obsolescence. The old software and hardware used to access the data may no longer exist, or it may be incompatible with modern computer operating systems. Even on these relatively simple CDs, the methods originally used to view the images could not be used with modern programs. Fortunately, some far-sighted individuals embedded information with many of the images so that much descriptive information about the scene (such as a description and a date) can still be read and understood. By contrast, a photograph made by an obsolete process — say, a Daguerreotype — can still be viewed even though the process has largely been supplanted.

960223-N-3717S-001/JPEG Navy Journalist 2nd Class Tom Gelsanliter video taps a Russian KA-25 "Helix" helicopter, as it lands on the deck of U.S. Navy's Ticonderoga Class Cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG 56) February 23, 1996. The "helix" is stationed on the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (CV 063). Admiral Kuznetsov recently conducted official naval training exercises with the San Jacinto while both ships operated in the central Mediterranean, 23 and 24 February 1996. USS San Jacinto is part of the battle group assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73). U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Todd Summerlin (Released)

A Russian KA-27 “Helix” helicopter lands on the deck of USS San Jacinto (CG-56) in 1996. This “Helix” was stationed on the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.

“But why does this matter?” one might ask. As the 1990s recede further into the past, these born-digital images — these records of note — will become part of history, with all of the baggage that may entail. And as “primitive” as these digital images may seem to our modern sensibilities of what a digital image should look like,they are products of a transitional era when photography was shifting to the digital realm. Today one would be hard-pressed to find image sources of current activities that aren’t digital.

On the 20th of March, 1996 these two children of Ilizda, Bosnia are are sharing some of the food that the German Goverment was handing out for humanitarian relief during Operation Joint Endeavor.

Two children of Ilizda, Bosnia are sharing some of the food that the German Government was handing out for humanitarian relief during Operation Joint Endeavor in March 1996.

The men and women who worked hard to digitally document the Intervention in Bosnia have earned the right to see to it that the fruits of their efforts should not be forgotten.

An image where the accompanying data did not come through. From context this may be aboard USS George Washington (CVN-73).

An image where the accompanying data did not come through. From the paper in the foreground we know this is on board USS George Washington (CVN-73).

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Incidentally, the author did investigate who else — if indeed there was anyone — who may have copies or offer access to any of these images from the hundreds featured on theses sets of late-1990s CDs online. He found exactly one other source for the first image: the National Archives.