Celebrating 150 Spotlight Exhibits - Curatorship by Benjamin Stone and Laura Wilsey

March 18, 2024Deardra Fuzzell

Black and white image of a farm worker who is bending down picking lettuce, wearing a large hat with a bandana resting under his lips.

The image above is featured in the Spotlight exhibition "The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford: Work and Social Justice." Leonardo Gomez has just seconds to decide which head of lettuce is ready to harvest, and to cut and bag it. Lettuce harvesters, or lechugeros, repeat this motion hundreds of times a day, bent over double and almost running through the field. They are highly respected among farm workers and earn relatively higher wages. His employer, Ocean Mist Farms, is one of the largest lettuce growers in the world. Coachella Valley, California, United States, 2017.

What follows below is the edited text of an interview conducted by Deardra Fuzzell, Manager and Designer of Exhibitions and Spotlight Service Team member, with Benjamin Stone, Associate Director of Special Collections and curator for American and British History, and Laura Wilsey, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian on 27 February 2024. Ben and Laura are the creators of The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford: Work and Social Justice. This interview was completed as part of a set of activities by the Stanford Libraries Spotlight Service Team to celebrate both the 10-year anniversary of the first Spotlight application launch and the publication milestone of 150 Spotlight exhibits.

Deardra: If we could think back to the creation of the David Bacon exhibit in Spotlight. I know it was almost four years ago that it was published, in the first year of the COVID pandemic. What was the impetus for creating an online showcase of David Bacon's photography?

Ben: The Spotlight exhibit was originally intended as a digital companion to the physical exhibition and the print catalog of David Bacon's photography archive Work and Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford (October 19, 2020 - May 9, 2021); or at least elements of it. The show took place physically, but very few people could see it because of the pandemic. So, the Spotlight exhibit has had many more visitors than the physical exhibit ever did because of the pandemic. There is a story to tell about how, at that time, this really was the surrogate for the physical exhibit. This is where Laura's expertise and skill came in. We did try to really recreate the physical exhibit in Spotlight, and Laura did a great deal of work with the metadata for that original set of approximately 157 images to accomplish that goal. And then, there have been successive additions to the Spotlight exhibit since that initial foray.

The core of the Spotlight exhibit was linked to this physical exhibit, but over time, as more of Bacon's images were scanned and accessioned, they have been added, and we have added more categories as well. So, from this core of 157, we currently have 2,200 digital objects in Spotlight.  

Deardra: Can you comment on the Spotlight platform's value and ease of use for showcasing this content? We just covered the value part of the question, but if you could speak to the ease of use of the Spotlight platform, that is something we wanted to explore.

Ben: Laura, I defer to you because you were the designer and put the digital exhibit together. In terms of ease of use for the end user, having both the browse categories and the search feature is important as they allow for different ways to explore the exhibit.  If the metadata is rich enough, you can explore in a focused way if you know what you're looking for and search for it, or you can browse using the categories.

Laura: I think you're right, Ben. We created item-level metadata. So, every single image has a distinct description. As a part of the process, we also added item-level tagging to each image. This was before that could be done in bulk in Spotlight, so it had to be done one by one. The metadata was rich, and we got some good description from David Bacon. Some of the images had metadata information in the XMP headers of their files that we had to figure out how to extract for each image gallery. Adding authority work, such as a name, a heading, subject headings, and genre headings, also increased discoverability and strengthened the overall impact of the exhibit. So, there are multiple entry points to the exhibit.

Deardra: What was the process for selecting the images and other content in the Spotlight exhibit?

Ben: Because this was envisioned as a companion piece to the physical exhibition, the intellectual work was already done by Robert Trujillo, the Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, myself, David Bacon, and you, Deardra, at least, for that initial set of 157 images. 

Laura: And then, Ben, correct me if I'm wrong, but when we expanded the scope of the number of images we wanted to describe and integrate, you and David worked together pretty closely. 

Ben: Yes, that is correct; David is still adding and creating more categories of images and essentially feeding those image sets to us. 

Laura: It's a unique project in that the photographer was involved in every step of the process.

Ben: Well, you're benefiting from the expertise and the knowledge of the artist and their vision. 

Deardra: How do we feel that the publication of this exhibit has impacted the associated research community?

Ben: For one thing, it has made his images usable by students and classes and for different research, teaching, and instructional goals. The archive has been used in teaching undergraduate courses on the Mexican-American experience here at Stanford. People have contacted David Bacon directly and sometimes seek permission to reuse his images in academic publications or scholarly articles. It has made his archive that much more visible. We often use the Bacon Archive as an example of our interest in collecting activist photographers, documentary photographers, and photojournalists who often have a deep connection to the organizations doing this kind of advocacy work and social justice. So yeah, I know anecdotally that many people have used it. 

Deardra: Can you speak to whether or not this exhibit is part of a larger context, such as an initiative or program within Stanford?

Ben: We tagged it with the heading of social justice. So, several other collections fall under this category from the University Archives and other collections and projects, such as Felicia Smith's systemic racism project. So it fits. It fits squarely in the body of resources that are related in some way to social justice. 

Deardra: Absolutely, that makes sense. Do you two have anything else you want to add or any questions you want to explore?

Ben: It was great to work with Laura because she had metadata experience and did so much work on the design piece for the Spotlight exhibit. This was a pandemic project, so we were both working remotely, and it was an ideal collaboration.

Laura: We worked together well and had a similar vision for the structure of the exhibit. It was just a pleasure to work with you, Ben. It was fun for me because it was my first time delving into Spotlight's nitty, gritty details. Before this, I had to help with the metadata component of an exhibit, but I hadn't had an opportunity to get my hands dirty working in the platform directly. So, I learned a lot about Spotlight and how it works.

Last updated March 19, 2024