Wheatpasted image

April 27, 2020

Identity and Media Connect in FORTEPAN Project

“I got a call from a great aunt I had never heard from before. This led me to do some ancestral digging.”

That’s how Alex Sojka, a graduate student in UNI’s Communication Studies program, got involved with the FORTEPAN Iowa project. 

Sojka knew that he wanted to research identity and media when he first came to UNI, but he wasn’t sure how his interests fit with departmental research. When he discovered the FORTEPAN Iowa project, he knew he’d found the perfect way to contribute to his future--by working with Iowa’s past.

Inspired by a sister project in Hungary, FORTEPAN is a photo archiving initiative that seeks to preserve the everyday history of Iowa by digitizing thousands of photographs obtained from Iowa citizens.

“This has been such a rewarding archive to establish,” said Dr. Bettina Fabos, associate professor of communication studies. Fabos founded the digital archive after encountering the original Hungarian photo archive during a Fulbright fellowship in 2013.

Taking its name from a photo-centric Hungarian film, FORTEPAN Iowa is the first project of its kind in Iowa and the United States at large.

“We are so proud UNI [is] the home site of the very first FORTEPAN state project in the U.S.,” Fabos continued. “This [is] an unparalleled resource for Iowa history and digital literacy curricula across the state and reaffirms UNI as a leader in digital creativity and education."

Since Fabos established FORTEPAN Iowa, the project has grown into an archive bursting with thousands of everyday images from 20th-century Iowa.

“FORTEPAN Iowa is growing from a one-man project to a movement that requires an entire team and organization,” said Sojka, who has worked with the archive since starting his graduate program.

Sojka’s interest in FORTEPAN was sparked when he talked to a distant relative and realized that he wanted to know more about his ancestral history in the state of Iowa. He hoped that his work with FORTEPAN could help others connect with their family histories.

Sojka and other graduate students help to manage and expand the archive through photo-sharing events. These pop-up events, held at local libraries and community centers, allow community members to bring in family photos so they can be scanned and digitally preserved.

“We are about community, and we are about sharing resources and making resources accessible to the public,” said Fabos, reflecting on her decision to partner with local libraries.

So far, the photos gathered at these photo-sharing events offer an overview of Iowa through the 20th century. Community members have shared images centered on recreation, agriculture, political events, and family gatherings.

In the scanning process, Fabos, Sojka, and others often discover beautiful photographic details that are not visible to the naked eye.

“The director of the [Cedar Falls Public] library…had an old photo of her ancestors immigrating to Pennsylvania via horse and wagon,” Sojka remembered. “After we scanned the photo to put it in the Fortepan database, we were able to make out an additional wagon in the background that was not visible to the naked eye in the original photo.”

Scanning and sharing photos has proven to be fascinating work for people all across Iowa.

The FORTEPAN Iowa archive has also contributed to wheatpaste murals around the city of Cedar Falls. These murals use a biodegradable mixture of flour and water to attach large-scale images to the walls of buildings.

Isaac Campbell, another graduate student in UNI’s Communication Studies program, brought his wheatpasting expertise to the project and worked with Fabos to create an impermanent mural on College Hill last fall.

Eventually, Fabos and her fellow archivists hope to display a full, interactive timeline of photographs on the FORTEPAN website. Visitors to the site will have the opportunity to access much of Iowa’s history for free.

“We have some beautiful, beautiful images,” Fabos said. She hoped that Iowans would take every opportunity to use the FORTEPAN Iowa archive, and she also believed that this initiative would encourage other communities and states through the U.S. to undertake similar projects.

Access the FORTEPAN Iowa archive here!


Grace Mertz is the GA for Graduate Writing in the Graduate College. For more information regarding this story, please contact her at mertzg@uni.edu.