Prism Project Proposal

Full disclosure: this list of questions came from a prompt by David McClure.

This also grows out of a blog post I wrote earlier about my interest in utilizing images in Prism.

What’s the overarching intellectual goal?

Analyze what visual cues in photographs trigger regional distinctions for their viewers.  Using photographs from the 1950s-1960s I am curious what images signal the “South” or the “North” in viewers of the photographs.  Specifically I am interested in the relationship between “blackness” and “Southernness” in these images.

What text/image/file? Which tags?

I have three images that I would be interested in processing through Prism.  They each portray some form of racial control or a response to that control.  As you can see, some fit easily into our memory of Jim Crow, a man at a segregated water fountain where separate is clearly not equal.  However, I am also interested in including photographs that frustrate our national memory of Jim Crow.  For example, in what region would a Jim Crow sign that refuses “Spanish” or “Mexicans” reside?  Finally, an image like the one below where there are no obvious signs of Jim Crow.  I’m curious what region people will choose in a photograph devoid of obvious regional signifiers.

In terms of tags I guess I would have a tag that says: Region and like on Facebook you could select a portion of the image and indicate what region you think that it is indicative of and why.  For the photos that include people, I would  have a tag like “subjects” where people can select the person and include a response about who they think this person is, what they are experiencing, why they are being photographed etc.  A last tag would not rest in the physical photograph itself but rather a space for readers to indicate why they thought the photograph was taken, what the political goals were etc.  I guess images don’t fit easily into the highlight model of Prism but I think there could be some fascinating visualizations that come out of this!

Who would participate? In what context? 

I want participation to be as open as possible.  My preference would be to maintain some demographic data of who is participating (ex. age, race, gender, location).  I could imagine, for example, splitting the responses up by region, considering what Northerners consider the South and what Southerners consider the South.  I am not interested in a closed environment setting, rather I think the more people across different regions, education status, ages, genders etc. responded the more interesting the outcomes could be.

How does it converse (if at all) with existing disciplinary lines of inquiry?

There are important historiographical implications for this project, specifically in thinking about the relationship between the cultural production that emerges out of segregation and the subsequent memory of Jim Crow.  The specific interest in the Jim Crow signage as text grows out Elizabeth Abel’s recent book Signs of these Times: the Visual Politics of Jim Crow, in which she examines the layers of discursive meaning in varied Jim Crow segregation signs.  Grace Hale’s work, Making Whiteness,  also informs the roots of this project.  She suggests that the rise of modern consumer culture created spaces of conflict in which the “culture of segregation” was formed.  It is intriguing to consider how these spaces of consumption memorialized in photography and subsequently in the national imaginary?  There are obviously many other scholars whose work this intersects with, those are perhaps for a later post.

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