Ten Years of the Trans Asia Photography Review
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As I write this, a pandemic is destroying human lives and economies in many countries, including my own — while also illuminating just how interconnected our world is. My hope is that by the time the 2020 issue of the Trans Asia Photography Review is released, the beginnings of recovery will be under way. Because this issue is being completed at a turning point in world history, perhaps it can be seen as a valuable record — and a timely reminder — of the continuing worth of human creativity, collaboration, and perseverance.
This issue of the Trans Asia Photography Review marks the tenth anniversary of the journal’s founding. The past ten years have been full of growth and change for photographic practice in Asia and for critical engagement with photography as well. There has been increased value placed on photographs — contemporary and historical, art and vernacular. New technologies have exponentially expanded the social uses of photography. Institutions for the preservation, display, study, and discussion of photography have emerged, as well as new formats for circulating photographs, locally and internationally. The photobook movement, which originated in postwar Japan, has expanded and flourished, and the growth of inter-Asian collaborations has been lively and fertile.
The TAP Review started at a point in time when scholarship about photography in Asia was just beginning to gain momentum. Christopher Pinney’s pioneering Camera Indica, published in 1997, was the first book-length study, in English, of photography from any part of Asia. By 2010, there was a steady trickle of published writing, though it was widely dispersed.
What the TAP Review sought to do was to bring together diverse histories and commentaries, written in English, and present them side by side in a single virtual space. Our authors have included art historians, anthropologists, artists, archivists, cultural historians, curators, critics, collectors, and independent writers from all regions of Asia and from Australia, Europe, the UK, and North America. We have maintained a high standard of quality through peer review and outreach. Over the past decade, the TAP Review has published more than 90 articles and 40 curatorial projects, profiles of numerous archives and organizations, and individual reviews of over 60 books presenting and discussing photography in Asia. We have also been committed to gathering information and making it available; our ever-growing Resources page features information about archives and organizations as well as records of conferences and symposia. We hope that the work of the Trans Asia Photography Review has supported and encouraged the development of the field as a whole.
Photography and Culture
The journal arose in response to a perceived need for new histories and discussions of photography across Asia. However, transnational projects are not simple. The diversity of Asian languages, cultures and histories presented a challenge to communication, and sensitivities about visual and verbal representation were important to take into account.
In preparation for our first issue, we sent questions about the relationship between photography and culture to key thinkers around the world and then published their answers. Our respondents raised fundamental issues underlying the “study of photography from Asia.” As historian Laura Wexler pointed out, “The visual field is not an innocent field; it is thoroughly imbued with relations of power.” Historically, photography in Asia has often been framed as derivative of Western photography. Critic Aveek Sen wrote, “Western art is assumed to be universal, transcending national or geographic differences. It is Art. But Asian art is not Art, it is Asian art.” Could photography specifically from Asian countries be studied in a global context without being implicitly marginalized?
We were optimistic about this for several reasons. First, shifting global power relations have already required people to put aside the familiar East-West paradigm and to find more nuanced, complex ways of thinking about the world.
Then, we were committed to specificity. From the beginning, we have maintained a central awareness of the dangers of cultural generalization. Even when articles center on technical or formal issues — or on the accomplishments of an individual practitioner — our fundamental commitment has been to bringing forth the specific histories and contexts that, on every level, inform the meanings of photographs. As art historian Anthony W. Lee wrote: “What we need — what I need — are more precise terms . . . to understand national and cultural contexts and trans-national histories. These things matter, always.”
And finally, our plan was always to publish diverse interdisciplinary writing by scholars working within Asia as well as from other locations — cultural “insiders,” “outsiders,” and those who might be positioned somewhere in between. Perhaps surprisingly, the use of English as the shared language of the TAP Review, although limiting in some ways, has furthered communication among writers and practitioners from different nations, both within Asia and beyond. And we have found that the plurality of viewpoints represented by our authors — and our readers — has created its own dynamic, multifaceted sphere of ideas.
This issue features twenty short pieces, each of which addresses an aspect of photography from the past decade in Asia. The contents are divided into four groups: “Field Notes,” “Curatorial Projects,” “Book Reviews,” and “Platforms.”
“Field Notes” are brief commentaries on the state of the field. They include thoughts on the continuing value of the idea of Orientalism (Behdad), the complexities of the photobook explosion (Lederman), the connections between cinema and photography (Ogawa), the political implications of family photos (Wexler), and the cross-cultural negotiations underlying early photography (Lee).
The “Curatorial Projects” section features the Photodemos project, which looks at connections between photographic self-representation and politics in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Cambodia (Pinney, Young, and Buthpitiya); a family photo archive that follows the migrations of one Cambodian family (Fox); the Hong Kong photographs of contemporary photographer Wei Leng Tay (Krischer); the work of four young women photographers in Vietnam (Maxtone-Graham); and the photographs of an early woman practitioner, Manobina Roy, in India (Gadihoke). The presentation and discussion of work by women photographers has been a consistent priority at the TAP Review.
Book reviews — a good way to engage with new work — have also been a central feature in every issue of the TAP Review. In this issue, new books by Karen Strassler, Terry Bennett, Teresa Eng, and Edward Stokes are reviewed by Veronika Kusumaryati, Thy Phu, Sebastian C. Galbo, and James McArdle, respectively.
The largest section of this issue, “Platforms,” offers profiles of new ventures throughout Asia: podiums for the circulation and discussion of photographs. Jeehey Kim writes about two contemporary photography journals — Vostok and Voices of Photography — based in South Korea and Taiwan, respectively; Deepali Dewan interviews the remarkable Shahidul Alam about the Drik Picture Library he founded in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Shuxia Chen informs us about an array of recent photography institutions in China; Rahaab Allana talks about the dynamic photo publication PIX and its accompanying exhibitions and events throughout South Asia; Zhuang Wubin tells the story of the PannaFoto Institute and the emergence of photo collectives in Indonesia; and Ha Dao lets us know about the innovative Hanoi-based forum called Matca. All of these platforms have emerged or significantly expanded in the past decade, and we are pleased to share information about them with you.
We are delighted to have both longtime and first-time TAP Review writers contributing to this very full issue, and hope that its contents will inspire many future conversations.
Origins and Thanks
In its first ten years, the TAP Review has benefited from the generous encouragement and contributions of a range of individuals and institutions, beginning with early support for the idea from Hampshire College.
An editorial/advisory board was then formed, and lent its collective wisdom and guidance to the enterprise before it even came into existence. That evolving board has been the beating heart of the journal ever since.
The very first person to join the board was Ajay Sinha, followed by Young Min Moon — who came up with the name Trans Asia Photography Review. Another key person in the early planning was Raymond Lum, who then became our Reviews and Resources editor. Until his untimely death, in 2015, Ray wrote a “Recent Publications of Note” column in each issue. These wide-ranging columns are still an incredible resource, as they track the growth and scope of the field. They are available in the searchable TAP online archive, along with the contents of all past issues.
Several other members of the editorial board have also made outstanding contributions. Christopher Phillips has been a sage and constant adviser. Ayelet Zohar, Young Min Moon, Anthony W. Lee, Claire Roberts, Yi Gu, and Deepali Dewan each shouldered the daunting task of guest-editing an issue of the journal. Their ideas, their networks, and their hard work enriched the scope of the TAP Review enormously. Jamie Maxtone-Graham, beginning in 2013, developed and actively maintained a lively and popular TAP Review Facebook page, which is ongoing. Through this page, he created an expanded platform for outreach, especially among photographers. Many other board members have contributed generously and substantially to the quality and well-being of the journal, as consultants on questions of all kinds, as peer reviewers, and as authors.
If the editorial board has been the heart of the journal, our authors are its lifeblood. They have included eminent figures in the field as well as those who are just starting out. In an effort to broaden the field, we have always made a point of including independent writers in addition to institutionally based scholars.
Deep gratitude goes, as well, to the many scholars around the world who have anonymously served as peer reviewers: This is a time-consuming and challenging task that is crucial to the quality of the journal but goes completely unrecognized and unrewarded. And thanks, of course, to our readers — we are pleased that the Trans Asia Photography Review has been seen as the “go-to” place by 36,000 people annually.
Of course, the TAP Review would not exist without the inspired work of our small and dedicated part-time staff: Zijun Guo’s beautiful homepage design, Doris Troy’s superb copy editing, and Gabriel Kennedy-Costa’s thoughtful organizational assistance have all been essential to the quality of the journal. Michigan Publishing has been a wonderful partner, hosting and archiving the TAP Review with great expertise and constant improvement (the hallmark of good online publishing). Rebecca Welzenbach, Kelly Witchen, and Patrick Goussy, in turn, have shepherded each issue into the public eye. We are grateful to have received funding — enabling the journal to exist — from the Five College Consortium over a period of six years and for Hampshire College’s steadfast presence as publisher. Special thanks go to Sheila Pinkel, Susan Leicher, and Sophia Lee for vital and knowledgeable interventions along the way.
In short, through the efforts of many the journal has flourished. The study of photography from Asia has grown significantly over the past decade, and we are happy to have been a part of its growth.
The Next Phase
I am delighted to announce that the TAP Review is about to move to Toronto, where it will be edited by a formidable and wonderful trio of scholars who have made contributions to the history of photography across Asia. Among their many accomplishments, Deepali Dewan is the author of two important books about early photography in India, Yi Gu is a key interpreter of China’s photo histories, and Thy Phu will soon have published five books on photography, one of them about photography and Vietnam. Each has served on the TAP Review board for several years and has contributed to past issues as an author and/or a guest editor. There could not be a better home for the TAP Review than with these three able editors.
After a pause to allow the editorial transition to take place, the new editors will launch their first issue in spring 2021. Calls for Proposals for the next three issues of the TAP Review are now available on the homepage of this issue.
In our first issue, Christopher Pinney asked: “Must we be forever condemned to study territories rather than networks?” I am grateful to have had the opportunity to build, through the TAP Review, a substantial cross-territorial network of individuals working in and on photography from Asia. It has been a privilege to work with so many extraordinary people. And it will be very exciting to see the next phase of the Trans Asia Photography Review unfold!
Sandra Matthews, Founding Editor, Trans Asia Photography Review