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As I entered this course, I was first apprehensive that my training as a conservator would impede my ability to adequately describe the Black Portrait Photograph Collection or create finding aids of use. As an object conservator, once an object reached me I felt obligated to care for it as holistically as I could, but quickly learned that much of what I considered care was outside of the predefined scope of the conservator.

My questions about context, content, and history were often rebuffed as curatorial issues unless the answer could be directly related to condition issues or potential treatment methods. Instead, I learned about which solvents were safe for what materials and under what conditions. My training taught me to view objects like a book. I am adept at examining its covers, understanding what kind of leather was used, dissecting its manufacture, determining how its spine is sewn and if it had been previously rebound, identifying the papers used and their geographic location, noting if the ink has long-term stability and considering the book’s usage both past and present, but I was trained to under no circumstances read that book. Learning visual analysis in this course reminds me of the joy I experienced learning how to read, because I, without even a shadow of a doubt, want to read that book.

When asked to create my own finding aid, I was struck by exactly how little I understood finding aids even though I frequently used them in my research. Their predefined categories, creation, and mechanisms for future updates were opaque to me and many in my cohort. Our readings have made it abundantly clear that our results will be entirely subjective regardless of what seemingly objective system we use and that there are so many avenues to approach our photographs. I have been rethinking my approach to archives and objects through some of the ideas presented in “Black Visuality and the Practice of Refusal” by Tina Campt. The essay unpacks the practice of refusal in relation to Black visuality and more broadly to what constitutes a refusal. Campt notes, “In previous writings (Campt 2012, 2017), I explored [an] ensemble of questions in the realm of the visual by seeking to understand how photography, in particular, has created rich strategic terrain for practicing refusal within and among Black communities in Europe, North America, and Africa.”(1)  She later explains that her working group discussing the practice of refusal came to the following conclusion of “refusal as a generative and capacious rubric for theorizing everyday practices of struggle often obscured by an emphasis on collective acts of resistance. For us, ‘practicing refusal’ names the urgency of rethinking the time, space, and fundamental vocabulary of what constitutes politics, activism, and theory, as well as what it means to refuse the terms given to us to name these struggles.” (1) It dawned on me that the entirety of what we are trying to accomplish in this course is a practice of refusal by rejecting the limitations of terminology and hierarchical metadata schemas to discuss photographs of unidentified Black people. 

For me, each of the reading assignments were puzzle pieces that often interlocked (and sometimes didn’t fit in my framework until weeks later) to formulate how my finding aid and Artstor metadata could look. Working from the University’s finding aid for the Black Portrait Photograph Collection, I chose to define the purpose of each section to increase usability, added contact information in the access section to make clear that information and access to that information are intended to flow equally in both directions, and clearly stated the University’s collecting habits in acquiring the Black Portrait Photograph Collection are part of its efforts to improve diversity, inclusion, and equity in its public research collection.

LaStarsha McGarity, May 2021, Black Portrait Photograph Collection

(1) Campt, Tina. “Black Visuality and the Practice of Refusal.” Women & Performance, 25 February 2019,

Finding Aid:

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