Tracing Visions


Tracing Visions

In June 1936, on an overcast day in Hebei, North China, a small group of American Presbyterian missionaries gathered for a photograph. They stood together on a brick walkway in a mission compound; a brick house with a decorative gable and slatted wooden shutters appears in the background to the left of the group, and a metal swing set stands in front of it, partially obscured. The individuals in the photograph, dressed in their “Sunday best,” display various expressions. Some smile, while a few others pose with serious looks; a black Labrador dog curled up at the feet of the group turned to stare intently. Other members of the group were perhaps less prepared. One woman blinked, another next to her puckers her lips as if in mid-smile, and a toddler wearing a miniature sailor cap raised his hand to rub his eyes, obscuring his face at the last moment. But all are aware of the photographer, whose momentary presence behind the camera – visible to the subjects but invisible to the viewers – made this photograph possible. What is to be made of this, a single vernacular image (above) of practically unknown missionaries in North China made some 80 years ago?

The image content reveals something else beyond the group’s presence. A rectangular camera case with its leather strap looped lazily on the ground around it sits at the left side of the frame. A spectacled man at the center of the group dangles a compact movie camera from its carrying handle, while the man next to him cradles an unfolded bellows camera, its small waist-level viewfinder reflecting a tiny bright spot of open sky back to the camera making the photograph. Finally, a man standing at right side of the group holds a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex upside down, its viewing hood open and pointing downward. This casual display of photographic equipment and image-making potential, “hidden in plain sight” to most viewers not specifically looking for traces of the photographic, references countless other unseen images – contained in the rolls of film that passed through the cameras in the hands of the few missionaries visible here, and likely many others made by their colleagues across China before and after this time.

In working with both religious and secular institutional archives containing images made in China during the 19th and 20th centuries, I came across many thousands of images currently available to researchers. An increasing number of these have been digitized, bringing the images into a world – wholly unimagined by their original subjects and creators – of web-based circulation, crowdsourcing, and new historical afterlives. (See Sassoon) Robert Bickers’ Visualising China at the University of Bristol and the Sidney D. Gamble Photographs Collection at Duke University are two groundbreaking examples of such digital collections; the latter being more specifically related to Protestant missions in China. Many more collections, for reasons of funding, institutional decisions, private ownership (it was in a private missionary family collection, for example, that I found the photograph that opens this article) remain un-digitized and practically invisible to wider publics. Terry Bennett, photo collector and independent historian of Chinese photography, notes this in his conclusion to The History of Photography in China, making particular mention of images produced by missionaries: “missionary archives contain much of photographic interest, but the sheer volume of material can deter any but the most determined of photo-historians. Transcriptions and digitisation…are necessary before such material can be more widely disseminated. This requires time and funds. The internet is powerless in this area.” (Bennett, 314) While the concluding statement on the Internet’s limited reach has now been addressed quite powerfully by online collections such as the International Missionary Photography Archive based at the University of Southern California, much more missionary visual material (particularly film and other difficult-to-digitize visual formats) and documents needed for contextualization remain largely unexamined in archives and private collections across North America.

In examining missionary images to tell a story about their makers’ personal visual practices, the role of images in transnational representations of Chinese Christianity, and the broad experiences behind American missions in modern China, I struggle with bridging historical and disciplinary registers – the macro and institutional against the local and personal, and the dichotomy between visual and textual primary sources. My dissertation addresses some of these binaries, linking the experiences (cultural and religious) and visual practices of American missionaries on the ground to the meanings and afterlives of their images – in other words, to examine missionaries in China as photographers and filmmakers in their own right. At the same time, the visual materials represent not only their makers’ experiences but also those of the communities in which they were embedded: Chinese Christian life, local environments, and a surprisingly wide range of other image subjects and spaces. Their representations through the lenses of missionary cameras exist simultaneously within the missionary enterprise and extend beyond it, with the images, the imagers, and the imaged presenting multilayered, interconnected histories that engender diverse potential avenues of inquiry.

On that note, I am repeatedly confronted with the large quantity and quality of missionary visual material “out there,” along with the possibility that many more images were produced in the past, but no longer physically exist or are inaccessible to researchers. In conceptualizing my dissertation, I balance the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of missionary images extant today alongside the handful of cameras carried by a single group of American Presbyterians in China, visible in one photograph in one album preserved by the descendants of a single missionary family. The broad historical “picture” and the individual photograph point to multiple visual practices and experiences that have yet to be explored in the contexts of modern Chinese history, global history, and related subfields. Certainly, with the number of Western missionary institutions active in China prior to the mid-20th century – Catholic and Protestant, subdivisions of religious orders and denominations, and mission-affiliated communities and branch institutions scattered across the country – even one dissertation on the photography and filmmaking of specifically American missionaries merely touches the tip of the iceberg. As such, I hope that other scholars will find interest in these materials and contribute their own perspectives and approaches to this fascinating body of visual sources.

With these challenges and possibilities in mind, I would like to switch gears somewhat and offer a few approaches to historical visual sources (namely vernacular photographs and, to a lesser extent, vernacular film) that I have found useful in my own research. These approaches inform some, but not all, of my investigation of missionary photography and filmmaking in 20th century China, and are not intended as a comprehensive “primer” on visual methods. To art historians and other visual culture specialists reading this, and who may find fault or incompleteness in these suggestions – mea maxima culpa.

Images are not merely illustrations. Yes, images illustrate. For many of the historical actors in my dissertation, photographs and film served to illustrate or represent certain parts of their experience in China for various audiences. On the opposite end of the spectrum, this is not meant as a catchall indictment of scholars who are not interested in close visual examination of every image used as a secondary source or illustration in their studies. We are specialists for a reason. But what I caution against is the uncritical use of images as mere “visual fillers” in historical production – or as an afterthought in publication or scholarly dissemination – that often divorces them completely from their original contexts, their makers, subjects, intended audiences, and historical afterlives. As historians, we contextualize and re-contextualize primary source texts; our craft depends on it. Why not give some of the same close attention to our use of visual sources? This can be as simple as a footnote describing (if possible) the maker(s) of the image, historical conjectures or a summary of its archival life, or a short visual analysis. Or if the image has particular import for your research – even if it isn’t the primary focus – unpacking the content and contexts when appropriate provides additional perspectives, sometimes comparable to a key quote or idea, that enriches the text in which the image is embedded.

Consider both content and context. Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, “The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence…in the Photograph, what I posit is not only the absence of the object; it is also, by one and the same movement, on equal terms, the fact that this object has indeed existed and that it has been there where I see it.” (Barthes, 115) For me, visual analysis begins by recalling Barthes’ observation – not only this quote alone, but also the fuller complexities in his encounters with photographic images; I highly recommend Camera Lucida to others who haven’t already read it. What I see in the image was, at least for a moment, there in front of the camera. Now, what does the image show or represent in this moment, within the visual frame, that is relevant to your study? Is it the dress, the environment, the postures and expressions of the subjects? (Barthes called this the studium, an idea that is explicated further in Part 1 of Camera Lucida). Now what can you postulate about what is unseen or outside the frame? Under what historical circumstances was this image – or set of images – made, and how would these contexts have affected its production and circulation? To a certain extent, this requires reading along and against the historical grain, fighting the impulse to immediately assign broadly “illustrative” intent to the image from scholarly hindsight; as historian Martha Sandweiss puts it, “we…need to guard against the constant temptation to let particular photographs stand for general events, or conversely, to let unidentified images stand for the experiences of particular individuals.” (Sandweiss, 340) If it is possible to trace, what were the makers’ original intentions or immediate uses for the image? What experiences – of the makers and the subjects – run through and around the photographic frame? I tend to look for references in letters by the makers or subjects regarding their visual practices or thoughts on images; for missionaries, who were profoundly epistolary people, these “on the ground” visual experiences are sometimes recorded in private letters and diaries – and more often than not, excised or entirely absent in institutional documents.

Visual practices and technologies matter. What we have as scholars and historians are the visible, materialized products of historical visual practices. Without falling into the trap of technological determinism, it is often helpful – if only as a thought exercise – to consider the ways that the image(s) in front of us were made, and how the technologies of production and circulation mediated its historical existence. In my dissertation, I examine the ways in which certain cameras, image formats, and photographic techniques affected missionaries’ production of images and subjects’ reactions to specific modes of imaging. This requires some knowledge of technical processes and camera technologies – often readily available from equipment manuals and resources from the photographic community – but can be briefly condensed into a few general questions. What was the photographer doing behind the camera? What did he or she do before, during, and after tripping the shutter or running the motor (if a movie camera is involved)? What technical limitations or processes shaped the image, defined its materiality and mediations of reality for viewers after-the-fact? How would these visual practices appear to human subjects, if any, in front of the lens? Sometimes handling or observing historical photographic equipment in use may provide a way to vicariously access these experiences – and you may find yourself becoming a photographer or collector along the way, as is what happened to me! But that’s another story.

Images have historical, material, and archival afterlives. I came across the photograph that opened this article in a scrapbook album, one of several containing hundreds of images produced by American Presbyterian medical missionaries Harold and Jessie Mae Henke in North China between 1927 and 1949. This album, along with a large collection of visual materials and personal papers related to the Henkes’ China experiences, is now in the care of their second son, Richard Henke. Richard, now 81, was the toddler with the sailor hat, rubbing his eyes in the photograph. Jessie Mae stands in the back row of the group, and Harold was the person who tripped the shutter. As such, the photograph not only visually frames missionary community and visual practices, but is itself also embedded in a missionary family history (with its own nuances and scholarly challenges) that overlaps with that of modern China, global Christianity, and the American presence in East Asia. In addition to the historical categories, circulation, and individual experiences that shape the photograph’s background and interpretation, the image’s material form is important: its placement in a large presentation scrapbook with handwritten captions, nestled among other images similarly narrated by their creators, and organized by geographic region and chronological order. This points to the importance of taking into account the “performative qualities” of visual material in encountering and examining images during the research process. As Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (14-15) argue, “in so many ways it is the material that defines our social relations with photographs…an approach that acknowledges the centrality of materiality allows one to look at and use images as socially salient objects, as active and reciprocal.” Without getting into a full-blown discussion on the transformative effects of digitization and digital metadata collection in humanities scholarship, I encourage historians and other scholars to handle the “original” photographic material as much as possible – to go beyond the digital surface as it is often so easily accessed, online and in archival databases – and to be self-aware of our roles in creating new afterlives, digital or otherwise, for historical images in our scholarship. I find a strong reminder to return to image materiality in Sassoon’s writing on the digitization of photographs. As she puts it, “it is…appropriate to consider a photograph as a multilayered laminated object in which meaning is derived from a symbiotic relationship between materiality, content and context. From this foundation it is possible to investigate how these aspects of the photograph are altered during the digitisation process.” (189)

In writing about all of this, I realize that I have not discussed the opening image’s broader meaning beyond its reference to missionary visual practice and the family (one of several) with whom I am working. While this may be unsatisfying to readers, particularly those less invested in visual culture per se and more focused on the other historical fields that the image “represents,” I can assure you that the links are there and will be explored in my dissertation (I know that’s not a satisfying answer either)! If anything, this provides a good impetus to continue work on exploring them in my dissertation and to encourage others to look more deeply into images in their own research. The tension behind photographic images, imaging, and their complicated presence (or absence) in historical scholarship is far beyond the scope of this piece. But if it has piqued your curiosity – or aroused your frustration – in even a small way about the visual and its relationship to historical reality and experience, I’m glad. It was this kind of encounter, simultaneously challenging and enticing, that drew me into working with photographs and film in my studies. As Barthes (107) described it, “since Photography…authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, i.e., in its essence, ‘as unto itself’ beyond simple resemblance…” One wonders if the missionaries preparing to be photographed on that summer day in North China imagined – if even for a brief moment – this visual existence as they stood before the waiting camera.

Joseph W. Ho
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Michigan

Visualizing China (
Sidney D. Gamble Photographic Collection (
International Missionary Photography Archive (

Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1981).
Terry Bennett. History of Photography in China: Western Photographers, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010).
Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart. “Introduction” in Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, ed. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
Joanna Sassoon. “Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction” in Photographs Objects Histories.

Image: Henke Family Collection; digitized by the author

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