Telling Iowa’s history though photography

[“Astro Boy,” 1980, New Hampton, IA, Donated by Mavis Lang, Fortepan Iowa, CC-BY-SA 4.0,]


Thanks to the work of UNI students and faculty, an online photo archive of statewide photos now has a new look.

Fortepan Iowa relaunched its website on Nov. 1. The website features vernacular photos, or those taken by individuals who are not professional photographers.

Over 8,000 photos are featured on the website, and many are family photos showing a small piece of what everyday life in Iowa was like years ago. The archive, which is free for the public to access, helps to preserve Iowa history in an easily accessible way.

Fortepan Iowa is the first sister site with Fortepan Hungary, a website which launched in 2010 and now features over 130,000 vernacular photos. The project has become important for Hungarians and is near and dear to their hearts because of the ability to preserve a history that is often lost or forgotten.

Isaac Campbell, a graduate assistant for the Department of Communication and Media who serves as the Fortepan Iowa project’s co-director, is excited about the new website.

“The relaunch of the Fortepan Iowa website is a huge milestone for this initiative and represents countless hours of passionate and dedicated work from numerous team members and developers over the last five years,” he said.

He said that over 450 UNI students and 20 UNI faculty members have participated in the project.

The relaunch was discussed because the previous Fortepan Iowa website was not as user friendly and was difficult to find specific photos. The new layout retains the website’s traditional timeline feature for users who want to look through photos from certain years, but with the addition of a search function, an opportunity to download photos and a button to look through new photos. Within the search function, users can choose a date range, what donor that photo came from and the location of the photo. There is also a page explaining how to use the website to get as much from the experience as possible.

The team has worked diligently on the website and is really passionate about the work they are doing, Campbell said.

“We really encourage people to create an account and start tagging images,” he said. “Our new search engine relies on crowdsourced terms for images to be searchable, and these are input by the user. So we really need help from students and supporters to get all 8,000 images tagged as soon as possible.”

In addition to creating an account and tagging images from the website, Iowans can contribute at any time to build the website and help share Iowa’s story to others. To donate photos to the archive, users can go to the website ( and click on “contribute.”

In speaking with those who have worked on this project, it is easy to see how much they enjoy their work and truly want to connect people with their parents, grandparents, and people in their communities. They are eager to continue to add photos and help paint the picture of Iowa and what it means to be an Iowan.

“So many people throw away their photos because they think they don’t matter. That simply isn’t true,” Campbell said.

“We value the photos of everyday Iowans because their stories tell a unique and important part of history – the lived experience of everyday people. I hope that students will speak with their parents and grandparents and consider donating their photos in the future so those memories can live on.”