In 1991, in the very first issue of the journal Diaspora, the political scientist William Safran called for a more sophisticated attention to the study of diasporas.[1] It was not that “diaspora” was then a radically new concept; it had long enjoyed common parlance in biblical studies, certain areas of ethnic studies, and works devoted to ethnic nationalisms of the Middle East. In those instances, however, its meanings were usually quite specific, pertaining to the exile of the Jews from their historic homeland. Safran and others of his generation asked whether such an understanding of a dispersed people might be useful to interpret the histories and experiences of other scattered groups. Why not Cubans and Mexicans in the United States, they asked, or Pakistanis in England, Turks in Germany, Chinese in Southeast Asia, Indians and Armenians virtually everywhere?

Safran’s article, along with several other key studies published about the same time, piqued wide interest and attracted scholars from a range of specializations.[2] Indeed, the study of diaspora crossed borders not only geographical but also disciplinary; it was one of the intellectual concerns that gave rise to the interdisciplinary thinking that now permeates the American academy and brought people from different trainings and interests into a healthy dialogue.

And yet, from its beginnings, the expanded interest in diaspora faced something of a conundrum. Although Safran and others described diaspora as a general subject, they left open the question of the methods of interpretation one might use to get at it. The social sciences, encompassing the fields to which many of them belonged, seemed to have ways to approach it, albeit quite distinctly from one another; but how about those in the humanities? Were some humanities fields more able to think diasporically? After all, in some cases, the study of diaspora would mean cutting against the grain of the fields’ nationalist underpinnings. Were certain disciplines better able to reshape their habits and more organically accommodate certain skills and tools from elsewhere? Did others permit the expansion or reevaluation of their canons to include materials that had previously remained below the radar? Were the scholarly methods of some disciplines better able to grasp the significances of “movement,” “longing,” “displacement,” and “home”?

Even Safran seemed to portend the various disciplinary directions the study of diaspora could take, and also the theoretical and methodological adventures it might confront. He ended with a twelve-point research agenda for the future, asking, among other things, how scholars might explore the shape of a diasporic “consciousness.” What characterized and facilitated it? language? religion? economic deprivation? political disability? the folklore and myths of home? shifting meanings about citizenship? other forms of textual or visual representation? The possibilities touched on many areas of expertise and relied on an even wider range of approaches.

It has been more than twenty years since the founding of Diaspora and Safran’s essay in it. As I look across the scholarly landscape, it seems to me that some fields have been more imaginative and embracing of the study of diaspora than have others. There are those with a rather higher degree of interest, among them certain subfields of history and English, and those with a rather lower degree, such as art history. And even in the social sciences, there is a disparity: anthropology is friendly and accommodating, political science and sociology are much less so. What about the history of photography? What about the study of Asian photographs, the general concern of the TAP Review?

This issue of TAP explores Asian photography and diaspora. Together the authors suggest the great fruits we can harvest by attending to photography in this way. In addition, they suggest photography’s special and historic contribution to the representation of diasporic peoples.

In many ways, the marriage of the two, photography and diaspora, might have been predicted. Beginning in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of the Kodak, the camera’s extraordinary portability made it possible for photographers to follow the streams of migration and take pictures. Its truck with popular and vernacular culture gave it an access to daily life and to the hearts and minds of a variety of common folk that other representations — say, easel paintings — did not so easily possess. And its way with memory, with preserving as well as constructing the past, made it fundamental to a key aspect of diasporic consciousness: the development of strong and sustaining memories of a homeland.

The following essays provide a variety of ways to think about the relationship between photography and diaspora. ShiPu Wang’s study of the early-twentieth-century Japanese American photographer Frank Matsura suggests that living in the diaspora facilitated, for Matsura, an astonishing and unique body of work that focused on those who were also scattered and displaced. Thy Phu’s study of recent Vietnamese immigrants and their family albums show not only the extraordinary emotional power of kinship images but also the political valence such images might wield for those living in the diaspora. Deepali Dewan’s essay on the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in Vancouver, explores both a diaspora among South Asians that did not happen and photography’s role in trying to reconstruct the experiences of those who were part of that event. These essays happily invoke a range of interdisciplinary tools and skills to grasp hold of their subject.

Two essays, by Josh Chambers-Letson and Susette Min, foreground the interdisciplinary relationships themselves. Chambers-Letson places side by side the work of the contemporary Okinawan artist Yamashiro Chikako and the writings of Walter Benjamin. Min looks at some pictures by the 1930s Japanese American photographers Shinsaku Izumi, Nakaji Yasui, and Shigemi Uyeda and offers a series of proposals, drawn from queer studies and postcolonial studies, to try to pry them from the usual, modernist ways of interpreting their work.

Two curatorial projects further the conversation. Young Min Moon introduces us to the work of the Japanese Korean photographer Kim Insook and suggests that we understand Kim’s various series as attempts to come to grips with the diasporic meanings of home and homelessness. Vuth Lyno introduces us to a trio of Cambodian-American photographers, Amy Lee Sanford, Pete Pin, and Seoun Som.

And finally, three photographers, Pok Chi Lau, Surendra Lawoti, and Wei Leng Tay, engage in a lively roundtable and discuss the meanings and inadequacies of thinking diasporically in their own work.

Anthony W. Lee is the Idella Plimpton Kendall Professor of Art History at Mount Holyoke College and guest editor of this issue of the TAP Review.


    1. William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,” in Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991), 83–99.return to text

    2. Among those key studies are Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Hutchinson, 1987); Kobena Mercer, “Diaspora Culture and the Dialogic Imagination,” in Mbye Cham and Claire Andrade-Watkins (eds.), Blackframes: Celebration of Black Cinema (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988), 50–61; Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 222–37; Aiwah Ong, “On the Edge of Empires: Flexible Citizenship among Chinese in Diaspora,” Positions, vol. 1, no. 3 (1993), 745–78; and James Clifford, “Diasporas,” in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 9, no. 3 (August 1994), 302–38.return to text