Bill Bonner: The Archivist of Photographic Memories

Bill Bonner has seen hundreds of thousands of photographs during his 31 years as the archivist at National Geographic. In fact, he watches over some eight million images in the vintage collection.

Before I met Bill, I thought I knew what having a photographic memory meant—you know, being able to remember everything you see. But he showed me another side, one that is literally filled with memories, both simple and important.

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A hand-tinted photograph from the early 1900s found in the vintage collection of National Geographic. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson

Bill works alone, in a cold windowless room in the basement of National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington. But even though he spends the days mostly by himself, he says he is kept company by the millions of people immortalized in the photographs. To him, they are his ancestors, and he treats each photo like it is the greatest treasure in the world.

Before picking up any photo, he dons one of his many white cloth gloves to protect the integrity of the image. He can look at a picture he hasn’t seen in five years and be able to tell you the photographer who took it, the location, the assignment it was taken on and what was happening in it.

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Bill Bonner oversees 8 million images in the vintage collection of National Geographic. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson

The respect that Bill shows each photograph is heartwarming. He firmly believes that each image holds a memory, and in many cases those memories have been buried alive by time. They are forgotten and unseen by the outside world, even though they hold great insights into its past.

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National Geographic autochromes on display in the archives overseen by archivist Bill Bonner. Excerpt from video by Kathryn Carlson

The first time I went downstairs to film Bill for this video, he was busy searching for old photos about South Africa, at the request of a magazine editor. One of the unpublished images he pulled has stuck with me. It was taken during the apartheid era at Christmas time, and it showed dozens of white men standing along a pool’s edge, tossing money into the water where black mine workers were fighting for their Christmas bonuses. It was a simple photograph, but it thrust me into the small, yet appalling moments of racism. There were no broken bones, no starving children, no corrupt cops. But there was degradation. There was merciless humor. There was struggle, strength, pride, hope, pain, entitlement, hate. That photo showed me apartheid. And Bill remembers that image, and those people, and the photographer every single day. He pays homage to their lives by keeping these moments safe in his memory, and sharing them with anyone who wants to learn.

View more photographs from the archive on the National Geographic Found Tumblr.

Kathryn Carlson was the most recent multimedia apprentice for National Geographic