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The toxic after-effects of human activities have an impact on people everywhere on Earth. With rapid economic growth under way in many parts of Asia, environmental problems can be acute. How do photographers in this region interact with the challenges of environmental degradation? In this issue of the TAP Review, we feature a range of photographic responses from China, Japan, Tibet, India, Indonesia, and Taiwan.
Our goal is to show an array of strategies — both visual and activist — as all approaches are potentially useful. The most prevalent tactics we discovered fall roughly into the categories of “documentary photography” and “art,” although both of these terms encompass many kinds of work.. We also found and noted projects that function outside these categories.
In the documentary mode, we present three main approaches. A powerful series of photographs by Lu Guang, made in the investigative documentary mode, dramatizes vividly the serious and widespread problem of water contamination in China. Each photograph is a hard-hitting piece of evidence, with background information provided. The curator Jean Loh describes Lu Guang as “one of the most famous foot soldiers in this war against pollution.”
In a more private, contemplative vein but still “documentary,” Kei Kobayashi photographs the radioactive landscape in the Fukushima region of Japan. His work, presented by the artist and curator Mihoko Yamagata, requires a quiet dedication, as he returns to the region repeatedly, making photographs devoid of people but filled with human presence.
In Taiwan, Guan Xiao-rong documented, in the 1980s, indigenous activists as they protested the storage of nuclear waste on their land. As he photographed, he also protested alongside them, thus becoming a participant/observer. His work, presented by the scholar Kuo Li-hsin, reminds us that most of the photographic strategies we see today are not new, but instead come out of histories of image-making and activism that are worthy of study.
Zhang Kechun’s haunting photographs of the Yellow River in China could also be considered “documentary,” but are exhibited in art galleries and museums. Xavier Ortells-Nicolau brings this work into conversation with the work of two other contemporary artists who are taking a more deliberately constructive strategy — Wang Qingsong and Yang Yongliang. Wang and Yang are both well known for their complex photographic constructions that reference traditional works of Chinese art and philosophy; Ortells-Nicolau discusses their work in relation to both Chinese aesthetics from the past and contemporary ecocriticism.
Other photographers play with the combination of aesthetic pleasure and critical awareness. Mandy Barker, for example, arranges debris found on Hong Kong’s beaches into stunning compositions, and Siu Wai Hang takes exhaust-covered plants from the roadside and photographs them in his studio. Sometimes constructive aesthetic strategies move into the arena of performance. The photographer Ducky Tse Chi Tak asked individuals to enact a kind of Hong Kong fairy tale in which people living in outlying areas give plants as gifts to those who are trapped in the concrete center city. The curator Lisa Botos presents the work of these three artists in conjunction with the WYNG Masters Award, a Hong Kong–based prize that encourages photographers to engage with social issues.
The narrative and the fanciful are elements of the partnership between the photographer Gauri Gill and the indigenous artist Rajesh Vangad, although the stories being told in these pictures often allude to environmental and human devastation. By superimposing his intricate drawings on Gill’s photographs, Vangad makes history and mythology visible in the landscape. In her accompanying text, the scholar Inderpal Grewal draws out the underlying meanings of this profound collaboration.
It is significant that both Guan’s work and that of Gill and Vangad deal with the impact of toxic human actions on indigenous people, reminding us of the disproportionate effects of environmental problems on those who have been disempowered.
The photographic works presented here engage with issues and activism in diverse ways. In some cases these works make present problems visible; in others they imagine pasts and futures. They use beauty and repulsion, subtlety and confrontation. Some photographers participate in direct political action in conjunction with their visual work. All of the images circulate via art venues, publications of many kinds, and Internet sites.
There is also important experimentation with other photo-based modes of activism. In collaboration with the scholar Olivier Krischer, the editor has assembled a group of images that work outside the established contexts for “documentary photography” and “art,” presenting projects that make use of the technologies of cell-phone photography, satellite images, and social media. These are but a few examples of a field that is increasingly under exploration.
The various strategies used by the photographers whose work is highlighted in this issue of the TAP Review are specific to their situations, but they are not exclusive to Asia. We hope that awareness of their work will be useful to others worldwide, as environmental challenges are ultimately shared experiences that link us all.
IN ADDITION TO thematic projects, we are pleased to publish four reviews. Stephanie Tung and Kimberly Shen review two important recent exhibitions, each of which is accompanied by a catalog; Tung discusses “Chinese Contemporary Photography, 2009–2014,” at Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum, and Shen writes on “Afterimage: Contemporary Photography from Southeast Asia,” at the Singapore Art Museum. Yajun Mo reviews the book Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Metropolis, 1926–1945, and Gael Newton writes about Ars Orientalis 43, a collection of essays on the subject of early photography and royal portraits across Asia.
As always, Reviews and Resources Editor Raymond Lum has produced a substantial list for Recent Publications of Note. And Jamie Maxtone-Graham continues to develop the TAP Review Facebook page as a rich resource in its own right.
We are delighted to welcome four new members to our editorial board: Vuth Lyno, Deepali Dewan, Laura Wexler, and Wu Hung. These extraordinary individuals have already made significant contributions to the study of photography from Asia, and each brings to the TAP Review special knowledge and a breadth of vision for which we are grateful.
Our thanks go to the Luce Initiative for Asian Studies and the Environment for adding its support to this issue. The LIASE grant at Hampshire College enabled us to hire a wonderful student intern, Olivia Wargo, who contributed ideas and insights every step of the way.
We continue to welcome feedback from you, our readers. Please feel free to contact us any time at email@example.com.
With best wishes,
Editor, Trans Asia Photography Review