Rosalind Morris, ed., Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009) 313 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-4205-2 (paperback ed.)


  • Rosalind C. Morris, “Introduction. Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia”
  • John Pemberton, “The Ghost in the Machine”
  • James T. Siegel, “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901”
  • James L. Hevia, “The Photography Complex: Exposing Boxer-Era China (1900-1901), Making Civilization”
  • Rosalind C. Morris, “Photography and the Power of Images in the History of Power: Notes from Thailand”
  • Patricia Spyer, “In and Out of the Picture: Photography, Ritual, and Modernity in Aru, Indonesia”
  • Nickola Pazderic, “Mysterious Photographs”
  • Carlos Rojas, “Abandoned Cities Seen Anew: Reflections on Spatial Specificity and Temporal Transience”
  • Marilyn Ivy, “Dark Enlightenment: Naito Masatoshi's Flash”
  • Thomas LaMarre, “Cine-Photography as Racial Technology: Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's Close-up on the New/Oriental Woman's Face”
  • Bibliography; Contributors; Index

“One cannot treat an absence directly.” (Siegel, p.57)

Photographies East: the Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia is the long- anticipated volume on the history of photography in Asia, which includes essays by well-known historians, anthropologists, and cultural theorists. In comparison with South Asia, whose photographic histories have received important scholarly attention by writers such as Christopher Pinney (The Coming of Photography in India, 2008) and James Ryan (Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire, 1997), scholars of East and Southeast Asia have only just begun to write at length about the role that tools of mechanical reproduction played in the construction of various aspects of Asian modernity. Curiously, this interdisciplinary volume does not contain any essays by art historians, even though art history is the field that has dominated the discourse of photography in the western world. The omission lends a self-conscious quality to the theoretical questions the volume introduces. Questions of representation abound in this book: seeing as encounter, looking as an act of power, the image as a shield against forgetting and as a talisman against time. To wit, what the essays present here is not about the aesthetic (pictorial) traditions embedded within photography, but rather, about the aestheticization of tradition and history through the photograph itself.

Three central concerns unify the essays that constitute this book: temporality (anticipation of death, memory), excess (of meaning, language, image), and the foreign (glossed variously as the modern and the sublime). The authors argue that these are the things that make photographs work, that allow them to be effective in private and political ways, and to be at the same time general (of a type), yet singular (“yes, that is me”). All of the essays give us an origin point for the photographic practices and traditions they discuss. Many of these origins reside in colonial history, which the authors draw upon to point to photography’s longue durée, and also to sketch out the links between what has until now been a Euro-American-centric discourse of photographic theory and the regionalized histories of East and Southeast Asia. It is from here that some of the most detailed and broad theoretical strokes are drawn regarding the logic of the camera, and as Morris notes near the end of her introduction, where some of the difficulties of maintaining thematic unity begin, as regional differences begin to assert themselves. What might the Boxer Rebellion (Hevia) have to do with contemporary ritual performance in Aru (Spyer)? Similarly, what does the exceptional and therefore subjectively particularized history of Japan have to say about the culturally generalizable photographic practices of Southeast Asia? Without the central concerns above, very little comparison could be made about the visual regime of one versus that of another.

I believe that the primary strength of the book lies in is its generative capacity. The essays are not organized chronologically or by region, but rather are linked by a series of questions that explore the various effects and powers of photography. The book is successful in deprovincializing East and Southeast Asia to the extent that the analyses that one finds in Photographies East could easily resonate with the experience of other regions and more marginal outposts of empire, in much the same way that Pinney’s work on India has been productive for a diverse set of scholarly projects on visual culture.

In an admirable feat of editing, the collective contributions from the authors reinforce the following ideas without being repetitive. There are some specific expectations that arise with colonial history, and more broadly the history of the mid-19th century to the present. Call it a modern urge. Looking into history, one expects to see a photograph. That wish to see a visual supplement, to experience the historical record as a picture book of the past, frames our study of history with a nostalgic residue. Paraphrasing Barthes, all that we see is past, and all that is past is always, as it were, charged with the time of its own imminent passing. The residual charge of passing, passage, death that imbues the photograph mediates what lies beyond the frame. Yet it is not always spectral death that haunts us in the photograph. Memento mori aside, as Morris argues in her superb introduction to Photographies East, the photograph awakens desire. Our desire to see, which far exceeds a common desire to be looked at, animates our interaction with the image (Morris, p. 18). As the viewer, we imagine an exchange of glances taking place between us and the subject of the photograph, one that confers recognition. It is the development of the gaze, of our shared participation in a visual economy of looking and being looked at, that stands in for and expresses the politics that structure colonial, postcolonial, gendered, and raced relations. Pazderic’s essay on mysterious photos and wedding photography in Taiwan reveals the intimate ways in which photography has infiltrated our historical consciousness, and modeled our self-image: “...it is often in the photographic portraiture of personal relations that one sees the traces of macroscopic historical processes.” (Pazderic, p. 183) Given the depth of our desire for the (self)image under the modernizing gaze of the camera, as Siegel’s essay on colonial war photography in Aceh asserts, not looking and not being looked at becomes unbearable.

Why is the camera the object and the moment of a grand historical fissure? Why does it mark the cleavage between the traditional and the modern, the colony and the nation, the time of kings and the time of democracy? Why is the photographic image that results from mechanical technology so seamlessly integrated into a narrative of the disappearing past, and an anticipated nostalgic future? Pemberton’s standout essay on colonial sugar factories in Java says it best: there is a ghost in the machine that cannot be seen. And it is this haunting sense that lingers in the photograph. In Morris’s words, “Foreignness, whether temporal, social, or spatial, is that principle which permits the image to open outward, so that it can signify something other than itself...It enters in the moment that the photograph is imagined as that which can or must be adorned, modified, enhanced, framed, or defaced – in a word, supplemented.” (Morris, p. 135) By the end of the volume, this post-structuralist language begins to seem almost normal to the camera. It is by way of effacement of the technical and the camera-object that this naturalization occurs.

What the book lacks is a sustained engagement with the technical and material aspects of the camera, with Ivy’s essay on the use of the flash in Japanese photography an exception. While the book on the whole is powerfully persuasive in its argument that the vernacular photographic traditions of East and Southeast Asia are in fact mediations of and (dis)engagements with the foreign, that is, never properly insulated or untroubled cultural practices, the camera itself is left relatively untreated. Having proven that the photograph bears the meaning and traces of other forces, notably broad historical, social, and political forces, the writers allow the photograph to become a remainder while the camera drops out of view. Does the camera not contain its own force, its own fascinating power? And if the world picture is developing at the same rate as the photographic image takes hold, are the photographic histories of East and Southeast Asia conditioned to always, repeatedly, experience the shock of the foreign?

Reviewed by Doreen Lee, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Northeastern University.