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A photograph is a powerful tool of representation. Taking a photo is an act of power by determining how something or someone is represented. Sitting for a photo is also an act of power, but it can be a way of self-defining one’s identity and representing one’s self to the world. As Wallace and Smith wrote, “For many African American’s, photography served not only as a means of self-representation but also as a political tool with which to claim a place in public and private spheres circumscribed by race and racialized sight lines.”[1] Photography could be used to intentionally craft an outward facing identity of blackness that challenge the hegemonic societal views of racial inferiority. For example, Frederick Douglas utilized photography to promote a specific public identity of himself: a freeman and citizen who was not an object of slavery. [2] Thus photography could be an act of resistance by utilizing and/or subverting the racialized index to self-define.

As Douglas recognized, viewing photographs is an act of power. Describing photographs and creating official metadata for public use is an authoritative act of power since metadata deeply informs the way information is presented and available which in turn affects how people understand the world and conduct research. The creators of the metadata have the power to ascribe meaning and identities to anonymous individuals. In this project to create metadata for “The Baltimore Collection,” we have seriously contemplated the power dynamics of our roles as catalogers. I often questioned: Who am I to describe and catalog the photographs in “The Baltimore Collection”? I, a white woman in the 21st century, am separated by time and experience. What do I know about the individuals in the photographs? What right do I have to ascribe an identity, whether race, gender, or nationality, to these sitters? At the same time, I think: If not me, if not this class, then who?

We, as a class, aimed to revive and preserve these images and the remnants of the individuals they capture, so perhaps one day, through our research and the research of others, they can be utilized by the public and maybe reunited with some context. From the start of this project, we stressed that it is vitally important to remember the humanity of the individuals whose likenesses were captured in the photographs. The images are of individuals who had families and friends, hopes and dreams, trials and tribulations. Though we may never be able to identify exactly who an individual is in one of the photographs of the Baltimore Archive, we must respect their story even if we can’t tell it.

In cataloging “The Baltimore Archive”, we had the opportunity to contribute to the resistance to structural injustices that black individuals have faced and continue to face today. As students involved in the cataloging process we recognized that, “we are in a position to change the vocabulary, decolonize our knowledge structures through education and awareness.”[3] In all of the decisions we made in cataloging from how we titled the photographs to our use of subject headings, we considered the current state of cataloging in terms of black archives, especially in terms of calling out blackness while whiteness acts as the norm.[4]

We considered the conscious or unconscious decisions that viewers, including ourselves, make when reading photographs to categorize and index the race of the individuals in the photographs. Discussing these cataloging issues including the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of minority groups is important and should be continually examined because “when we understand how governments and elite classes of classes of citizens continually benefit from this categorical misunderstanding, we gain insight into a key mechanism of colonialism.”[5]

However, it was important to not solely fixate on the structural injustices reflected and continually replicated in archives in order to take action to increase digital accessibility to the images in this collection. Indigenous cataloging movements helped inspire our methodology. In their work on indigenous cataloging projects, Duarte and Lewis stated that, “rather than focusing on the marginalization, we choose to imagine the decolonizing possibilities of Indigenous knowledge organization”. [6] Durate and Lewis established a methodology through which groups can begin to transform this theoretical task into a practical process.

Similarly, our class established a methodology for our metadata creation working within established platforms. Perhaps the most important aspect of our methodology was that it was a communal activity. We collaborated in all aspect of our work while respecting individual decisions in an effort to reduce bias and be self-reflective. Since there were two people working on many of the photographs within the collection, we minimized the risk of a single person’s biases controlling the final product.[7]

Throughout this project, we aimed to make conscious decisions that were informed by critical research and consultation with experts in order to honor the anonymous individuals represented within the Baltimore Collection. We recognize that the work on “The Baltimore Collection” is not complete. We did not solve the structural issues of power within metadata creation, but we did critically engage with these issues in an attempt to minimize their negative impact. Using the digital platforms of ArtStor and our WordPress site, we aimed to prevent the further erasure of this collection and the lived experiences of the individuals represented within it. Ultimately, I believe that by presenting this collection on various platforms, we have fostered further research and use of the collection by a wide audience, which supports resistance to the structural erasure of the varied experiences of black individuals in history.

[1] Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, “Introduction: Pictures and Progress” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012) 5.
[2] He also lectured that the value of the portrait photograph is that it captures the sight that others have of oneself. To Douglas, the photograph did not represent the “truth” of an individual’s identity; instead he theorized “the self as a contemplative interiority manifested through self-possession,” and the photograph could be used to help define and represent this interiority to others. Ginger Hill, “‘Rightly Viewed’: Theorization in Frederick Douglass’s Lectures on Pictures” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012) 43.
[3] Ingrid Parent, “Knowledge Systems for All,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53, no. 5-6 (2015): 704.
[4] The North American Imprints Program is working toward adding subject headings like “Blacks as authors,” “Blacks in the printing and publishing trades,” and “Blacks as illustrators” to catalog records in order to increase the recognition of black authors. While this is a worthy goal, it is working within an existing cataloging system that places whiteness as normal and blackness as “other.” Working within the existing catalog system was likely the only option for this project based on the time, budget, and breadth of the collection, but there are serious and unavoidable drawbacks. Molly O’Hagan Hardy, “The Practice of Everyday Cataloging: ‘Blacks as authors’ and the Early American Bibliographic Record,” Past is Present, the American Antiquarian Society blog, June 29, 2017.
[5] Marisa Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis, “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53, no. 5-6 (2015): 681.
[6] Ibid, 678.
[7] That is not to say we have solved the issue of bias and are creating completely neutral descriptions and metadata. Unfortunately, that feat is impossible, but by working together and reviewing descriptions we are forcing a critical analysis of all the data we create to remove as many assumptions as we can recognize.

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