Faculty member wants to redefine how we look at photography history
Jeehey Kim studies Asian photography, with a specific focus on funerary photography – the practice of taking people's portraits for use at their eventual funerals.
The history of photography is often presented as the history of American and European photography, and that's not good enough for Jeehey Kim.
"When I was in graduate school as a doctoral student, it was necessary for me to have knowledge of Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and those canonical American photographers," Kim said. "But it was totally fine for me not to know the Japanese and Korean photographers of the same period."
Kim decided to focus her studies on Asian photography – particularly vernacular photography, or photography used in daily life.
Honoring the spirit of the dead
Kim's specific interest is funerary photography – the art of taking formal photographs that tie into the common Asian conceptualization of death. She says people will go to photo studios to have portraits taken for use at their eventual funerals or annual memorial services.
"Death is not understood as the end of one's life or the extinguishment of one's being," Kim explained. "Your spirit never dies. Your body extinguishes, but your spirit is living. Funerary photographs remind us of the very being of those spirits."
A common belief in Asian culture, Kim said, is that the spirits of the dead remain around us and are present at services and ceremonies to commemorate them. Funerary portrait photography gives the living in attendance a reminder of the physical being of those spirits. In Asian culture, this often translates to a national spirit as well, particularly in the case of those who die in war.
"Even kamikaze pilots – before they embarked on their suicidal military missions – one of their rituals before their departure was to go to a studio to get their portrait taken," she said. "There are memorial museums in Japan with many of these portraits of the war dead."
Kim said the practice remains prevalent today in Asia, with people even volunteering to take funerary portrait photographs for free of people who are homeless or of elderly people who may not have family to help them.
Introducing Asian photography to the campus community
Kim said she was drawn to the University of Arizona in 2019 because of the history and legacy of the Center for Creative Photography. She joined the university with a dream of enhancing that legacy by infusing more content and resources focusing on Asian photography.
She began that effort by organizing a virtual symposium series focusing on different aspects of Asian photography. It began in February with "Photography and Korea: History and Practice" and continued earlier this month with "Photography and Taiwan: History and Practice." The virtual events featured artists, curators, scholars and museum directors weighing in on photography practices and movements and their relation to issues including colonialism, postcolonialism, gender issues and national identity.
The series is supported by grants from the Academy of Korean Studies and the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan. The events featured professional interpreters for English, Chinese and Korean. Kim said she hopes to continue the series with events on potential themes such as photography and archipelago or the tie between photography and militarism.
A camera-shy photography expert
One might think it's a reasonable assumption that someone who spends her professional life studying photography would also enjoy it as a hobby. For Kim – not so much.
"I get that question all the time from my students," she said. "They always laugh that I barely take pictures, and I don't like having pictures taken of me."
She said that likely comes from her father, who did enjoy photography and constantly made her pose for pictures she didn't want taken. The result, Kim said, is a family album full of pictures featuring her frowning, younger self.
And while Kim studies photography as a cultural phenomenon, there's at least one current trend she doesn't quite grasp.
"Some of my family members are obsessed with taking pictures of their food wherever they go," Kim said. "They'll say, 'Stop Jeehey! You have to let me take a picture before you touch your food!' What makes people so obsessed with taking these images?"
TopicsArts and Humanities
University of Arizona in the News