Questioning the archival imperative of access, this research article discussed how descriptive metadata can be used to contextualize and problematize digitized archival photographs, which are often inadequately described in the digital environment. Beginning with literature review of atrocity photos and their use and digitization to discuss the risks inherent to disseminating photos of or born from violence. Review continued into the digital environment and the risks inherent to making difficult archival collections accessible online and the conflict between the right to privacy of the individuals represented in archival materials and the archival imperative to provide access.

Expanding on the recommendations made for ethical digitization of difficult or problematic archival collections made by scholars and groups such as Tara Robertson, the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group. This article provided Case studies of a variety of digitized archival collections with offensive or violent contents and called for an acknowledgment of archival Labor in deciding which collections should be digitized and for a consensus on how to determine which collections need extra care and consideration in description.

This article criticized the way archival metadata schema and vocabulary reduce photographs to their visual content and provided case studies focusing on metadata. It also introduced contextualizing essays as a tool for critical description. and acknowledged that Metadata work should be used with other measures to ethically digitize and disseminate collections with violent or oppressive histories. It connected Saidiya Hartman’s concept of Critical fabulation to the contextualizing essay, concluding that metadata can be a tool for helping a user of a collection consider it in its historical and social context and provide a space for representing the experiences of those depicted in a collection, especially a collection with violent or problematic origins.