Optics: Race, Religion, and Technology in East Asian Photography, 1868–1949

AHA Session 98
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Paul D. Barclay, Lafayette College
The Audience

Session Abstract

How does visual technology change the way that we interact with each other and our world? How do images create and shape reality for the audience, image-makers, and subjects? Our panel seeks to explore the many ways in which photography (and filmmaking) service the construction of ethnicity and national identity in Asia and the world. Long before the Internet, the sharing of photographs was a global phenomenon. From the nineteenth century forward, photos taken in East Asia readily crossed oceans, becoming part of an exchange of visual culture that included mass-market newspapers, magazines, postcards, propaganda posters, and church publications. Photography was often a tool of imperialism, as was the case in the Japanese Empire, which looms large in three of our papers. But sometimes non-state actors could use photography to document their world in ways counter to the empire’s interests. Finally, individuals themselves could also pick up a camera and (re)frame their own visual identities, especially as newer snapshot cameras became more prevalent and cheaply available through the 1920s and 1930s.

Our first two panelists look at photographic representations that depict the farthest reaches of the Japanese Empire. Christina Spiker examines photographs of the Ainu--the indigenous inhabitants of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Russian island of Sakhalin, and the Kuril islands that extend towards Kamchatka. Her paper examines the process by which original albumen prints of the Ainu were transformed into other media, such as woodcut engravings and newspaper illustration. By adopting a broad definition of photography that goes beyond the printed image, she demonstrates the gradual calcification of indigenous stereotypes of the Ainu in the Meiji (1868-1912) and early Taisho (1912-1926) periods. Paul Barclay focuses specifically on the period of “Taisho Democracy” to examine photo postcards created to represent Japan’s multiethnic empire. From the Ainu of Sakhalin to the peoples of Micronesia, he argues for the importance of recovering the names of the anonymous sitters featured in mass-market propaganda. In their transformation into “ethnic icons,” Barclay brings to light tropes of authenticity, variety, and exoticism that buried the agency of non-Japanese subjects.

Our final two papers examine visual culture in Republican and wartime China, considering the roles of vernacular imaging practices in shaping personal and national identities. Matthew Combs looks at the changing technology and the business of cameras in China of the 1920s and 30s, charting a link between the rise of amateur photographers, new technologies, and ideals of modernization. Combs highlights how young Chinese photographers framed themselves and the nation with their Kodaks. Joseph Ho peers through American missionaries’ lenses and analyzes their varied documentation of wartime experience throughout China in the 1930s and 40s, investigating visual responses to chaos, contingencies, and national political polarization. Ho uses three diffuse case studies to bridge the gap between the local and the transnational, showing how non-state religious actors visualized the war and how visual materials (films, filmstrips, photographic prints, and family albums) framed these perceptions while being shaped by the war itself.

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