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Photos in Women Veterans Historical Collection and Research Travel Grant Attract Doctoral Student from University of Texas at Austin to Visit UNCG

What do your snapshots say about the way you look at the world? Andi Gustavson wants to know.  The recipient of the University Libraries’ Research Travel Grant this year, Gustavson has an unusual dissertation topic for her work in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, one with a somewhat unconventional methodology. Her dissertation, “What Comes Home: Vernacular Photography and the Cold War, 1945-1991,” explores how American nurses, servicemen and servicewomen, and diplomats used their cameras to construct their own worldviews, posing and positioning themselves within an emerging new global order. Because these personal photographs depict the ordinariness of life lived amidst violence, she believes that they are key to understanding how Americans became accustomed to a culture of endless war.

Andi Gustavson in Martha Blakeney Hodges
Special Collections and University Archives Research Room
Gustavson says her work bridges a gap in the scholarly research on war and photography—a gap that exists because of the practical difficulties of engaging personal photographs as sources of historical and cultural information.  Most studies of the era that involve photographs have focused on the work of professional photographers, some of whose work is iconic.  Less studied are those taken by veterans themselves.  Snapshots are ubiquitous, Gustavson says.  Lots of them were taken and shared.  Sources that pull them together in one place… not so common. 

“UNCG,” she says, “is a treasure trove with the photographs in its Women Veterans Collection.”  She can’t say enough positive things about the collection and the help she’s received from the staff at UNCG, before and during her visit.  She learned about the collection from its digital presence on the Internet.

That’s the big reason that Gustavson began corresponding with Beth Ann Koelsch, curator of the Women Veterans Historical Collection at UNCG, a collection rich in photographs made and kept by women veterans during the period Gustavson is studying.  Finding so much of the UNCG collection in digital format allowed her to do much of her work from Austin, but Gustavson eventually was drawn to visit the collection and see the physical objects, which allowed her to examine how the photographs were used – whether they have backing material indicating that they were used in scrapbooks, or pinholes indicating that they were used in exhibits and displays, or evidence that they were mailed home, heavily handled, etc.  The Research Travel Grant offered by the University Libraries to use the special collections here made it possible for Gustavson  to make her visit, something that she says could never otherwise have happened with the resources otherwise available to her as a doctoral student.  Each chapter in her dissertation is being framed by how the photographs came to be collected, and the chapter on nurses that she is spending most of her time at UNCG studying is an example of an institutional collection devoted to collecting material about veterans.  Other chapters will be framed by the myriad other places she finds veterans photographs, and the ways in which they were collected.

Gustavson is vitally interested in visual culture, and says her ideal professional position would be a university professor in the field of American Studies and visual culture.  For now, though, she says she’s about a third of the way into her project, and is out visiting private homes and small collections of photographs as well as institutions, sources she has uncovered by  giving talks and meeting veterans, employing what she calls “The Snowball Method” of finding sources of these photographs.  She’s also written a grant (pending) to mount a website devoted to her topic, and hopes that will also prove productive.

The Special Collections at Texas were one of the major factors in her decision to do her doctoral work there, Gustavson says.    She now works as a curatorial assistant at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and says the experience has helped her learn to ask better questions and communicate better with curators of such collections wherever she finds them.  She’s grateful that Department Head Keith Gorman and Women Veterans Historical Collection curator Beth Ann Koelsch, in particular, have been so helpful in furthering her research and making her feel welcome here at UNCG.