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Photographs are not made in a political vacuum; instead, they often support — or critique — national agendas. These agendas may be military or cultural, government-sponsored or grassroots, and can be invoked with or without the intention of the photographer. In the fall 2016 issue of the Trans Asia Photography Review, Self and Nation, we investigate the links between national agendas and photographic projects, whether artistic, journalistic, commercial, or personal, from China, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia via London, and Hong Kong.
The need to define a national agenda may be most acutely felt in a situation of conflict. Rashmi Viswanathan discusses a fascinating photo album made in the early 1860s by John Tresidder, a British surgeon living in India. The album puts photographs of Tresidder’s family and friends together with portraits of Indian leaders — imprisoned and condemned to death — of the 1857 Uprising against British rule. Viswanathan analyzes the ways in which the album asserts the culpability of Indians and the innocent victimhood of Britons in this situation of conflicting national agendas.
At times of social instability, photographs of key individuals can become stabilizing national symbols. Alison Miller discusses the unusual public role played in early twentieth-century Japan by Empress Teimei, the wife of Emperor Taishō. Miller tracks Teimei’s appearance in newspaper photographs from 1899 to 1926, contextualizing them in terms of the changing roles of royalty and cultural shifts in the representation of women.
No nation is entirely homogeneous. Two scholars look at the representation of minority groups in China. Yanqiu Zheng brings to light little-known ethnographic projects from the 1930s and 1940s that, interestingly, supported government efforts to assimilate tribal groups into the Chinese national “fold.” Jiangtao Gu presents contemporary work by the Mongolian-born photographer Aluss, whose artistic photographs invoke the separate lives of Tibetans and other nomadic groups in China, suggesting that cultural integration has not happened.
Although the Chinese artist Zhang Dali may be best known for his recent project, which deconstructs the political manipulation of photographs by the government, here Katherine Grube talks with him about his own process of moving, over time, from being constrained in his art-making by an extremely narrow government-imposed agenda to gradually becoming transnational in the scope and reach of his work.
Sometimes an individual can be deeply connected to more than one nation. As a Saudi woman living in London, Wasma Mansour explores this dual sense of identity in her photographs and in conversation with the visual culture theorist Marco Bohr.
John Clark surveys the long career of Hamaya Hiroshi and the multiple ways in which Hamaya engages visually with a Japanese national ethos. As a small part of his career, Hamaya was employed by the government to make wartime propaganda — a more blatant expression of a national agenda. In addition to his article, Clark has created a valuable timeline and bibliography of Hamaya’s career as resources for future scholars.
A sense of national identity can be enhanced by the preservation of historical photographs. In his review of Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong: Photographs from the 1950s, Lee Wing Ki points out that these early images have been rescued and made newly available at a time when they can help contemporary Hong Kong residents clarify their trajectory as a kind of city-state.
With a more indirect link to ideas of nation, Debjani Sengupta preserves and discusses the work of her father, who worked in Calcutta movie studios in the 1960s and ’70s making publicity stills for popular feature films. Her writing evokes the rapid development of a culture of urban modernity in India during this period; both films and photographs were an important part of this national change.
Please browse and delve into the contents of our fall 2016 issue — you’ll find much to think about! And don’t forget to visit the ever-expanding Trans Asia Photography Review Facebook page, still ably administered by Jamie Maxtone-Graham.
Although we still miss Ray Lum’s regular “Recent Publications of Note” column, we are delighted, in this issue, to draw on the expertise of both Russet Lederman and Jiayi Liu, who offer us their “picks” of recent Japanese and Chinese photobooks.
With best wishes,
Editor, Trans Asia Photography Review