China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Does China as photographic subject give us unique insights into the limits and possibilities of photography as a medium for exploring global modernity? Photography’s apparently objective transcription of reality and representation of non-repeatable events have long made photography a crucial source for historians. Yet since photography’s invention, assumptions about the medium’s transparency and objectivity have been inseparable from questions of its relationships to natural and cultural agencies and to the environments of which photographs are a part, and thus questions of the tenuous relationships between what a photograph shows and what it depicts.
This panel aims to think beyond photography as evidence, and contemplate how historical and contemporary actors have thought through photography at two pluralistic junctures for Chinese modernity: the early 20th-century Republican period and the post-socialist present. Focusing on the former juncture, Shirley Ye examines the photographic archives of engineers who worked on China’s Yellow River and Grand Canal, while Yajun Mo explores how the Sino-Tibetan frontier was rendered visible and invisible by the Shanghai photographer Zhuang Xueben. At the latter juncture, Hanchao Lu excavates memories and nostalgia for the high socialist era registered in “old photographs” published in China’s most widely-read public history magazine, and William Schaefer examines art projects in Beijing and Shanghai that use photographic collage to make manifest urban ecological forms. We ask how these diverse projects challenge us to think together beliefs in photography as transcribing the real and as an ecological medium in exploring histories, memories, and landscapes of modernity in China.