• RSS

We are pleased and honored, as we enter our third year of publication, to publish this special issue of the Trans-Asia Photography Review, The Aftereffects of War in Asia: Histories, Pictures, and Anxieties, guest edited by Professor Young Min Moon of the University of Massachusetts. An artist, writer, and curator, Moon brings to this project many years of engagement with issues of militarism and the residues of war in the context of South Korean art. For this issue, in addition to his own contributions, he has translated three essays by other Korean artists and scholars, making them available in English for the first time. However, the scope of the issue also goes beyond the concerns of the Korean peninsula. Concentrating in depth on specific situations throughout Asia, the issue raises awareness, with subtlety and complexity, of the multi-faceted and enduring legacies of wars. We hope that the ideas and information presented here will stimulate further work on this important topic.

Sandra Matthews, Editor

Trans-Asia Photography Review

The Aftereffects of War in Asia: Histories, Pictures, and Anxieties

Aki Ra, a Cambodian de-miner, made a relatively quiet visit to South Korea in August. Ra is a former youth soldier recruited by the Khmer Rouge to place landmines throughout Cambodia and now is recognized for having removed some 5,000 landmines thus far. He has been spearheading the urgent task to eradicate this ever-present threat to his people. Ra shared his life-story and mission with South Koreans, as de-mining is finally becoming recognized as a necessary task in this still-divided nation.

Spanning across Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam, the articles and curatorial works presented in this issue introduce photographic work that examines some of the aftereffects of war, including bombings, explosions, and destruction. However, the issue does not simply gather images of war and violence that might be considered spectacular or fascinating to the eye. In fact, the photographs included in this issue rarely show direct actions of violence or its immediate aftereffects. Rather, the contributing artists and authors examine the historical, sociopolitical, and economic contexts and psychological ramifications of war. These include: destruction and regeneration; economic aid given in lieu of participation in a war; manipulation and exploitation of people by states; resurgence of traumatic memories; migration and displacement; arranged sex and body politics in the shadow of the Cold War; establishment of new social hierarchies; and the inherently ambivalent nature of images, especially when manipulated through ideological framing, fabrication, or disguise.


I begin with Korea, the situation that I not only know best but also believe to be a concatenation of profoundly contradictory events. Living in Seoul, it is hard to believe that South Korea is actually in an armistice with North Korea. Finally, South Korea is making a “serious” cultural impact internationally, symbolized most recently by the rise of the K-pop star, Psy, who reached no. 2 on the Billboard music chart and whose music video has become a global sensation attracting 400 million YouTube visits. As I write this, a huge crowd is watching Psy’s free homecoming concert at Seoul City Plaza to celebrate his international success. Not only in music, but in other realms of pop culture, as well, South Korea is creating an ever-greater impact globally. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is merely 40km away from Seoul, and the North Korean Navy sank the South Korean Cheonan battleship only two years ago. Yet, war seems a distant reality.

But not always so distant. One afternoon in August, while conducting research at the National Assembly Library, there suddenly was the deafening noise of a helicopter just outside causing the huge glass façade of the library to shudder. Moments later, orders to evacuate came over the public announcement system. We were ordered to participate in a Civil Defense Drill in preparation for a potential attack from North Korea or terrorists. What a nuisance, I thought momentarily. Everyone was herded into the main auditorium in the basement. The empty stage was lit as the PA system broadcast interviews about drills taking place in different cities. It was clear the respondents were reading scripts rather than providing spontaneous answers. The program even included safety quizzes, and people could call in to compete for prizes. Even college professors were invited to take part: one quoted historical precedents in which civilians joined together during moments of national crisis, such as the Japanese invasions during the Joseon dynasty. The orchestrated episode was obviously an attempt to justify mass anti-Communist defense training. The broadcast ended with an interview with another professor, who was asked about whether the drill might induce fear in the public and negatively affect the economy. A perfect ending, I thought.

I was participating, or witnessing, the Civil Defense Drill for the first time since I left South Korea nearly 30 years ago. Amid this episode, I realized something was missing: the photograph of a former president, an ex-general, that in former times always hung on the front wall of auditoriums. Some things have changed, but some have not. Autocracy had its days, but South Koreans no longer need to swear allegiance to presidents in photographs. Though the picture is missing, its legacy is still in place. For me, it is a photograph of a stern man, but it is also a picture that I am all too familiar with, laden with memories of a society repressed by competition, oppression, and institutionalized violence endured by all. The missing picture is a source of anxiety that I had wished to forget. It is also the mirror image of the pictures of North Korean leaders that hang everywhere on that side of the DMZ. It all reminds me that the Cold War is still not over in South Korea.

This is just one story of pictures and anxieties among many one could encounter in South Korea today. In addition to other stories to be told from other wars in different parts of Asia, this issue of Trans-Asia Photography Review presents several other aftereffects of the proxy war known as the Korean War, the Cold War, and their enduring legacies. Dear Heung Soon is an imaginary letter that the Korean artist Heung Soon Im composed, addressed to himself, based on interviews with Korean veterans of the Vietnam War. Though written in a casual tone, the letter nevertheless provides a succinct historical context for South Korea’s deep involvement in the Vietnam War. Unraveling over nearly four decades since the end of the war, the voices of the veterans, channeled through the letter’s semi-fictional correspondence, reveal profound anxiety and ambivalence towards Korea’s participation in the Vietnam conflict.

In The Logic of Pity in an Era of Armistice: Hein-Kuhn Oh and Area Park, Jee-sook Beck considers sociopolitical factors that inform adolescent Korean male identity: anti-Communist ideology and conformism, compulsory military service and its many specters, and a typology of men. She borrows Alison Landsberg’s notion of prosthetic memory to examine both the sense of paradox and affect she finds in Hein-kuhn Oh’s recent photographs of South Korean soldiers. In Area Park’s photographs of youthful North Korean defectors, Beck identifies their precarious position in relation to conformist South Korean society. By linking these two groups of male adolescents, Beck offers an empathetic and affective reading of temporal and spatial distances of photographic media and representation in the context of an armistice in the Korean peninsula.

In his essay Leviathan: Kang Yong Suk’s Maehyang-ri Photographs, Chan-Kyong Park examines the “strangeness” and the paradoxes in the controversial U.S. military’s bombing test site in South Korea. Park underscores the inadequacies of the notion of landscape, and probes the politics of place, location, and territory in explaining these images of completely devastated, post-apocalyptic land.

Signs of American imperialism are visible not only in Kang Yong Suk’s Maehyang-ri photographs, but also in Sheila Pinkel’s curatorial work titled Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) in Laos, as well as in Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds series from Cambodia, included here in the curatorial work by Vuth Lyno. Pinkel’s article examines the dire consequences of the 2.5 million tons of U.S. bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War, a sizable portion of which did not detonate and continue to pose severe risks to the population. She documents the posters posted in public places warning of the dangers of landmines and unexploded bombs. Their “naïve” illustration style belies the frightening consequences of unexploded ordnance. Pinkel also documents the creative uses of empty bomb casings in everyday life in rural Laos.

In Vuth Lyno’s contribution, Cambodian Photographers Document War and Violence, we engage with the work of three Cambodian photographers: Vandy Rattana, Khvay Samnang, and Sovan Philong. Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds documents the millions of bomb craters made by the U.S. military in Cambodia. Like the reimagined uses of shell casings in Pinkel’s photographs, the bomb ponds become important sources of water for irrigation in the region. Yet, these compelling images quietly disclose the emotional scars of the Cambodian people, as well as the physical scars on the land. Khvay Samnang’s group portraits for a high school graduation, titled Reminder, is an unexpected, uncanny encounter with the suppressed memories of the genocide at the Tuol Sleng detention center during the Khmer Rouge regime. Khvay’s portraits imply that we may discern pictures of the executed beneath the pictures of young students today. It seems as though profound anxieties remain suppressed, but then resurface momentarily. Finally, Sovan Philong’s documentation of violent struggle between the state and evicted farmers in Kampong Speu Province in 2011 conjures images of Goya’s Black Paintings, while also recalling the rampant executions of ordinary people before the establishment of Cambodia’s ostensibly “democratic” government.

Ellen Takata introduces rare Vietnamese postcard images in her extensively researched essay, Icons in Disguise: Vietnamese Resistance Figures Hoàng Hoa Thám and Ba Biểu in French Colonial Images and Related Texts 1909-2007. Takata’s careful readings of the photographic images of Hoàng Hoa Thám and Ba Biểu demonstrate how the images were constructed to inculcate French superiority over Vietnamese and to induce the latter’s cooperation and docility. The images, however, also yielded a postcolonial reading of the Vietnamese’s subtle resistance against the French regime by using photography as an indispensible tool to document the subject, rather than “portray” it and hence render “natural” the relationship between colonists and colonized. In a surprising turn, Takata also reveals how in photographs of the colonial villain Ba Biểu, “framing” and retouching done by French military officials resulted in simultaneous cross-cultural references: that is, Ba Biểu embodying the figures of a Christian martyr and seated Buddha at once.

In her essay Camouflage, Photography and [In]visibility: Yamashiro Chikako’s Chorus of Melodies Series, Ayelet Zohar examines Yamashiro’s representation of survivors and descendants of the forced mass suicides in her native Okinawa in the final phase of the Second World War. Employing theories of camouflage and perception in nature elaborated by Charles Darwin and Abbott Handerson Thayer, Zohar examines Yamashiro’s sustained practice of engaging with the collective trauma of Okinawan society. She analyzes Yamashiro’s representational strategy of locating her subjects among the broken patterns of shadow and light in a forest in terms of “becoming-imperceptible.”

In my curatorial work, Report from the Underside: Dongducheon, I introduce photographic works found, arranged, or made by Yong Tae Kim, Sangdon Kim, Kang Yong Suk, and siren eun young jung. Dongducheon is a small city near the DMZ, the world’s most heavily militarized border. Having been occupied by large U.S. military camps, the city was formerly burgeoning with entertainment and sex businesses catering to American soldiers. The photographs in this online exhibition depict the relationships, at times awkward or forced, between Korean women and American GIs, and make reference to migrant Filipina club workers, who have replaced Koreans in these jobs. The images of the inhabitants of Dongducheon testify to the complex history of the city and its fraught relationship with the governments both of South Korea and the U.S.

Gauri Gill, a Delhi-based photographer, offers a reflection on her own photo and text-based installation work, What Remains. Gill has been concerned with issues of migration, displacement, and memory. In this case, Gill presents narratives of the coerced migration of Afghani Sikhs and Hindus from Afghanistan to India after the Soviet siege of Kabul, and under the threats of religious extremism. Invited to offer a workshop with locals in Kabul in 2007, Gill later collaborated with Khalsa Diwan Refugee Association members in Delhi. What Remains is a combination of Gill’s own photographs, collaboration between Gill and members of the refugee association, and texts drawn from writing workshops that she offered to refugee children. Gill puts it best in describing the intention behind the work: to create “a palimpsest of memory and its multitude of cohesive and contradictory facts” pertaining to the lives of forced exiles due to political upheavals. Gill asks, “who were we there and who do we become here, and as we go on, what remains?” What remains? Perhaps memories, desires, yearning, sadness, regrets, and hopes—that which constitutes what it means to be human? However, suspended in limbo, many migrants find themselves neither here nor there.


Whatever remains, it is clear that war and violence do not “end” as such. Their consequences continue to be reworked in successive generations. War and violence indeed result in specific political, cultural, economic, and psychological quandaries, and these continuing legacies are often connected to one another, at times intertwined to a surprising degree.

For example, it was only in recent years that many South Koreans learned of their troops’ brutal murders of Vietnamese civilians during the conflict there. At the same time, children of Korean soldiers and Vietnamese women in Vietnam continue to face economic hardships. As Heung Soon Im notes in his letter, South Korea benefitted from the compensation it received from the U.S. for sending its troops to Vietnam - the second largest military force there next to that of the U.S. Similarly, Japan was able to rise from the rubble by contributing labor and supplies for the United Nations forces during the Korean War. The decades-long presence of the U.S. military in South Korea resulted in many births of “mixed race” children. Most of them are said to have eventually chosen to immigrate to the U.S. in order to avoid the racism prevalent in South Korean society. Meanwhile, many Koreans, Chinese, Okinawans, and others remain dissatisfied by what they perceive to be a lack of recognition on the part of the Japanese government regarding historic war crimes.

This issue of Trans-Asia Photography Review has focused on well known and lesser-known histories, and the ways that artists and writers are working with them. While it does not pretend to be comprehensive, by juxtaposing these histories, the special issue attempts to present the complex entanglement of international and human relations in the aftermath of war and violence. It does so without resorting to showcasing images of horror, for it is not the shock of images but the sustained critical analysis of and reflection on war and violence that are crucial.


I would like to extend my gratitude to Sandra Matthews for inviting me to edit this issue of the TAP Review, and for her support in numerous ways throughout the process. I also deeply thank the artists and authors for their contributions and for allowing me to reproduce their work.