Death and Photography in East Asia: Funerary Use of Portrait Photography


Jeehey Kim

PhD defended at: 

The Graduate Center, City University of New York



In order to explore the historical and socio-political layers of vernacular photography in East Asia, this dissertation compares the practice of funerary photo-portraiture in five countries by examining the basic concepts underpinning it. China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam all incorporate portrait photography into funerals and annual ancestor worship rituals, differentiating portrait photography of the deceased from that of the living. Funerary portrait photographs of historical victims also play a role in establishing national memorials and shrines in these countries, and these portraits reflect experiences that are transnational, such as the Japanese colonial experience.
The dissertation explores how changes in family dynamics, geopolitics, and the flow of capital have challenged and complicated the traditional use of funerary photo-portraiture. In particular, it reveals the ways in which funerary portrait photography not only is involved in establishing a national identity, but also how it jeopardizes the social imaginary of a communal identity. Because experiences of colonialism and war affect the use of funerary photo-portraiture, the discourse of hegemony is central to exploring the influence of geopolitics on structuring visual cultures of East Asia.
This dissertation is conceived as a socio-political history of vernacular photography in that funerary portrait photography has been used in each country of East Asia to structure as well as to challenge national identity. My dissertation also aims to contribute ways of overcoming essentialism in dealing with the culture of the Other through cross-regional and comparative methodologies, while suggesting the importance of a parallax view as a way to overcome the problem of transparency. This dissertation shows that anthropologists and scholars of cultural studies might assume a more neutral and object posture as analysts of different perspectives rather than as translators or interpreters of culture. It ultimately aims to explore how studies of vernacular photography might contribute to revealing the passage of hegemony throughout East Asia, while deconstructing the desire for imagining a homogenous identity in each country of the region.
Unlike postmodern pluralist politics that emphasize heterogeneity and incommensurability, this dissertation revolves around issues like pluralism and difference. It will focus on relationships of power in order to discover how some differences operate as relationships of subordination. The dissertation’s aim of exploring antagonism and conflict created by seemingly pan-Asian cultural practices will contribute to a reconsideration of what kind of insight studies of photography can offer to contemporary society.