Accepted Paper:

Catholic Guatemala through a Japanese lens: Yasu Kohei's studio photography as anthropological documents (1895-1915)  


Ping-Heng Chen (Heidelberg University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the Japanese photographer Yasu Kohei’s practice in the context of early photography in Guatemala. Through a discussion of the complex relations in which his studio photography was entangled, it helps to explore how archival photographs can be used for anthropological purposes.

Paper long abstract:

As the first Japanese migrant in Guatemala and one of the most important pioneer photographers in that country, Yasu Kohei's reputation rests preponderantly on the depiction of Catholic monuments and religious sculptures, as well as on the portraiture of the local clergy. Having acquired his photographic skills upon arrival in Central America, Yasu (1846-1917) opened his own business under the name of "Japanese Photography Studio." At the time when other foreign and native photographers in Guatemala were energized by the modern and progressive aspects of liberal reform, Yasu focused instead on ancient Catholic themes. Based on the archive of his work at the Fototeca CIRMA, this paper explores Yasu's staged photographs of religious motifs as documents that provide evidence of the aesthetic and social contexts of photography at this particular juncture of cultures and temporalities.

Influenced by Catholic symbolism and pictorial conventions, Yasu's compositional techniques bespeak a strong sense for arrangement and decoration. By looking at his practice of retouching photographs to include captions and attribute speech to depicted figures, connections to local traditions of painted pious images can be traced. Yasu's religious photography represents a peculiar genre that transverses the realms of the public, the religious, and the private as they converge before his camera eye. Through a discussion of the complex cultural influences and social relations in which his photographic practice was entangled, this paper explores the use of archival photographs for anthropological purposes.

Panel P128
Photographic anthropology: past, present, and future