Issues of Cultural Sensitivity

This site includes historical images and accompanying materials that may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record. Please be aware before entering the site that some of the images may be disturbing.

When viewing the images in the Vanishing Georgia collection and reading the accompanying descriptions a picture of Georgia history emerges. However, Vanishing Georgia is not a complete picture of Georgia history. For a comprehensive picture of Georgia history, it is necessary to look further and deeper than the images and information in this database. As in any pursuit of historical truth, critical evaluation of biases present in Vanishing Georgia is needed if the collection is to be used as a building block in constructing a modern narrative of Georgia's past. When measuring the accuracy and completeness of a collection, it is important to consider the purpose of the collection as a whole, the characteristics of the individual items that make up the collection as documentary resources, and the complex nature of history itself.

The Vanishing Georgia collection grew out of a need to preserve photographs from deterioration and ultimate destruction. Beginning in the 1970s, about 100 years after photography became widely available, it was critical that older photographs be permanently archived before they were lost. The Georgia Archives selected images from individuals and other groups as a means of preserving endangered images and of gathering information about those images while donors who could give firsthand accounts of the people, places and events depicted were still living. Though the resulting collection does document Georgia history in part, the project was not designed specifically to produce an exhaustive documentary photography collection. The scope of the project was limited to items presented at public sessions and later, to those items brought to the Georgia Archives. Due to budget constraints, many Georgia counties were not visited by the field archivists. Significant aspects of Georgia history and culture, among them certain aspects relating to the lives of women, African Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities in Georgia, may not be adequately represented.

If, for example, there is a lack of adequate representation of African Americans in the collection as a whole, it must also be considered that this reflects the underrepresentation of African Americans in the entire body of historical American photography. By playing a role in whether or not African American subjects were photographed, and, when they were chosen as subjects, in how they were portrayed, cultural bias shaped Vanishing Georgia long before archivists began collecting the materials. Effectively, cultural bias limited what would be available to be photographed again and preserved. The same considerations must be given to certain portrayals of women and other ethnic and racial minorities.

Additionally some controversy surrounds the idea of photographs as objective documentary resources. When viewing the Vanishing Georgia images it is important to recognize the wide range of the original photographers and photography represented, from amateur to professional. Though photographs are often thought to represent neutral observations, every photographer has subjective reasons for taking photographs, and makes decisions about subject portrayal and composition accordingly.

Again, for example, when African Americans in Vanishing Georgia are portrayed flatly as stereotypes, humorous curiosities or exotica, or when they appear at the periphery of the frame, this reflects the photographer's motivation, interpretation and judgment in capturing the scene. These issues must be considered critically when constructing a narrative from the images in the collection.

The oral histories and personal accounts that the cataloged descriptions of the photographs often draw from are no less problematic from this standpoint. Though, like the photographs, the information given is highly valuable, it must be acknowledged that it represents interpretation and judgment in terms particular to the culture of the donor. Outdated language, prejudice, and stereotyping of women and ethnic and racial minorities may be found in some of the descriptive text from the archival records. However, as the record stands, such biases represent an important layer of Georgia's history.

When creating this database, it was deemed important to preserve the transparency of the layers of history visible in Vanishing Georgia as they were presumed to provide insight into the nature of history and archival records themselves. These layers show how history and archival documentation often comprise a series of decisions about what was thought to be important at a given point in time. As a whole, Vanishing Georgia, can be viewed as a synthesis of stories and images. Yet because the stories and images chosen for inclusion are imbued with the personal judgments and perspectives of their creators, it is an incomplete picture of historical reality. The Vanishing Georgia database project has addressed issues of cultural sensitivity and gender as follows: