Tag That Photo Helps Name Photos from Australia’s Jewish History

In 2021, Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) partnered with the National Libraries of Australia and Israel to digitise all Jewish newspapers published in Australia since the 1850s. The final collection is now over 250,000 pages at a cost of over $US200,000.

As a by-product of this exercise, we discovered that there were over 40,000 pre-digital photos stored in brown envelopes in the archives of the Australian Jewish News (AJN) – the premier Jewish newspaper in Australia.

The photos were from 1960s through to the early 2000s. They were stored in brown-paper envelopes with between two and 50 photos in each. Photos could be headshots, of small groups or even 20-30 individuals. Some photos had handwritten names and dates on the back – some nothing. The outside of the envelope had the name of only one key person who was in the photo – the remainder were undocumented.

AJHS decided that the digitisation and identification of these photos would be a key project meeting our charter of archiving the history of the Australian Jewish community. However, without names attached, the photos would be of little use.

In order to name the photos, we realised that we needed a technology which not only utilised facial recognition but also immediately added the names of subjects to the metadata of the photo so that we would not need to link a separate indexing database. Another consideration was to find a solution which could run locally and was not dependent on long-term cloud processing and related storage costs.

Initial exploration took us to a major international IT company who were already working on such a project. Their estimate was an annual licence fee that would be circa $US50,000. We also had discussions with universities who were willing to look at the development of a solution as a Masters or PhD project. Again, we would be looking at a one-off cost of circa $US70,000. Both solutions would have taken at least a year to complete.

Our digital collections manager came across Tag That Photo (TTP) – a Windows software solution using advanced face recognition technology for the purpose of tagging digital photos. When we saw the annual license fee of $US39, we thought it was too good to be true!

We installed TTP and ran it against our AJN database. At that stage we had already digitised some 10,000 photos. Immediately TTP flagged thousands of faces that appeared in multiple photos. The slog was checking the backs of photos to see if there were any relevant names. Now after four months work, we hold over 12,000 AJN photos and have recognised 20,000 faces of 8000 individuals. Concurrently, we are incorporating additional databases of AJHS communal photos. The more photos we add, the better we refine the data.

Using TTP is easy. The suggestions are presented in a single view. For high performance on large collections, there is no substitute for a PC with plenty of RAM and a fast solid-state hard drive. All AJHS photos are shared and backed up on Dropbox, but we store the master collection on a single machine for processing and tagging. . Developing a workflow for adding names when referring to other databases is easier with a large monitor or preferably two.

Without TTP, AJHS would be holding thousands of scanned images with tens of thousands of unnamed faces which would be of little benefit to researchers.

We now have an ever-growing collection of tagged images with names and other metadata embedded in those images using industry standards.  That collection is now preserved to support current research and allowing future generations to access those memories.

Peter Philippsohn
Australian Jewish Historical Society

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