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July 15, 2003


    OSWEGO -- When SUNY Oswego Distinguished Teaching Professor Geraldine Forbes spends October to April in India through a Fulbright Scholarship, she will fulfill a project many decades in development.
   Her time in the country will involve bringing together two of her major research interests: the study of the evolution of women's roles in India and the historical use of photographic images.   

    "I began working in women's history just when they were beginning to call it 'women's history,'" noted Forbes, who chairs Oswego's history department. After she was asked to edit the memoirs of Shudha Mazumdar, an Indian voluntary social worker and writer, in the 1970s, "one thing led to another," Forbes recalled, and she found herself increasingly studying changes in the roles of women in India.

    She saw a progression in "the idea of what is a modern woman" as the law and medical professions and universities in India opened doors to women in the late 19th century, Forbes said.

    Photographs from India's colonial period proved a valuable tool for research, as photo studios flourished in some parts of the country by the 1870s, she said. The way a woman was depicted in pictures -- in traditional dress with bare feet or in modern clothes surrounded by material possessions -- said much about the subject, she explained.

    Forbes noticed that, academically, photographs increasingly "moved from the domain of art historians to become the stuff and substance of social and cultural historians, anthropologists, philosophers and critical theorists," she wrote in her project proposal. She identified bridging "the gap between visual history and women's history" as a key objective of her work in India.

    "I realized that stories people tell with photography don't make it into accounts of their lives," she said. "When people see photographs, it triggers memories of things that weren't part of the photographs."

    In addition to the back stories these photos could tell, their underappreciated role in chronicling history intrigued Forbes. "I became very interested in photographs and realized that if women's history, letters and documents were not in libraries, that was even more true of photographs," she said.

    The time in India will allow her to "complete the research necessary for a monograph of photographic imagery and women's history in colonial India, and develop a shareable archive with photographs I have already collected," Forbes noted. She started the photographic research about 20 years ago but has not been able to finish because of other work. She plans to lecture on her findings at universities and colleges in India.

    The Fulbright Scholar program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, provides opportunities for American academics to study abroad as well as for scholars from other countries to teach in the United States.

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