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Commentary : Keith Dahl, Rest in Peace

Pan Am delivered Keith Dahl to American Samoa at 4 o’clock in the morning on the fifth day of the tenth month of the year 1975. He cast his first vote in a local election in 1976, and voted every two years for the next 36 years. He went to work at Pacific Products in 1975 as the accountant, and he was still working there last week.

Earlier this week, “Kifi” (as he was widely known) passed away at his home in Ili’ili, at the age of 72.

He left behind 800,000 photographs he took in American Samoa over the past 37 years.

To save you reaching for a calculator: that is about 22,000 pictures a year, or about 60 photos a day.

Do you consider yourself a photographer? I asked him last month. “Well,” he said in his mild manner, “I never studied the craft.” But he certainly practiced it.

For decades, Keith was a regular presence at sporting events, Flag Days, Proms, Military Balls, weddings, and every sort of community gathering. He’d take pictures, get the film processed and order double prints of every shot. Then he’d store 20,000 to 30,000 of the latest photos in his van, which also served as his mobile kiosk.

You could buy any print he had for 50¢. Or order an enlargement. Back in the day, Samoa News bought and published many of his community and sporting event photos. Over the years, he spent about $150,000 on his “hobby”, and earned a small portion of that back through sales. “It was my community service,” he told me.

Keith estimates he shot photos at more than 500 weddings, and many of those weddings involved the children of people whose weddings he had taken photos of decades earlier.

You want old school? All the photos Keith shot were on film—he never took a digital photo. In fact, he never took a photo in his life before 1975, when he used a Kodak Instamatic to take his first picture. In other words, he found American Samoa and photography at the same time.

Keith was persuaded to move to American Samoa by his brother, Arthur Dahl, who was an Ecological Advisor to the South Pacific Commission. A member of the Bahai faith, Keith worked for Pacific Products, which was was owned and run by Suhayl and Lillian Ala’i, who were pioneers of the Bahai faith in Samoa and American Samoa.

Suhayl, a beloved member of the local business community from Persia, passed away in 1995 and Lillian moved to Australia two years ago. Keith stayed on.

He lived in Pagai for 10 years, then in Onesosopo for 10 years before moving to Ili’ili. He never married.

His opus, the 800,000 photos he took, have not all survived. Sometimes he sold the last copy he had of a photo. Some were ruined in floods or by the weather (they were stored in an un-airconditioned space).

In 1999, he approached Territorial Librarian Cheryl Morales and informed her, “you are in my will.” As Morales was new on island and had not yet met Keith, she was taken aback, but he explained his provocative statement. A year or two ago, he decided to start transitioning his collection to the library prior to his death and began spending several hours every day upstairs at the library, patiently sorting through his photos. Each of the photos he took had a code on them that he had been using for decades, and that made the huge job a little easier.

Even still, after more than a year, less than 30,000 (4%) of his photos have been cataloged and scanned.

Morales says they started scanning Keith’s earliest photos, from the 1970s and 1980s. The work will continue with two part-time staffers. The catalog is not available to the public now, but anyone with a question can contact Photo Librarian Mary Tiamalu to make an appointment.

Tiamalu can also help people who are interested in the thousands of other historic photos in the Polynesian Photo Archives, including 3,000 images taken in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by photographer Don Cole. Those images were donated to the Library by the Coles more than ten years ago.

When I spoke to Keith last month, he told me he would be kept busy cataloging his photos for ten years, but four weeks later he was gone.

Fellow Baha’i John Ludgate said, “Our whole island will sorely miss this kind and gentle soul.” Rest in Peace, Kifi.



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