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Doctoral Project

Japanese Photography in Guatemala: Transcultural Visuality and the Migrant Life of Yasu Kohei
Ping-Heng Chen (M.A.)

As social documents and products of a unique history, photographic archives have drawn the attention of recent scholarship. They are the focus of analytic concerns such as the asymmetry of power relations and the usage of visual materials in the context of the construction of a social memory. My project intersects these concerns to study the life and photographic work of Yasu Kohei (屋須弘平 1846-1917, also known by the Spanish name Juan José de Jesús Yas), the first Japanese migrant to Guatemala, and to investigate the politics and aesthetics of the creation and reception of a migrant's photographic archive in both the home and the host societies.

Yasu Kohei’s migrant life was part of the global intellectual network that connected Asia, Europe, and Latin America in the late 19th century. Living a drastic change of socio-political scenery upon arriving in Guatemala, Yasu dedicated himself to Catholicism and photography, yet remained involved in the political affairs of his home country. In the 1980s, his work was collected into the Archivo del Estudio Fotografía Japonesa of the Center for Mesoamerican Research in La Antigua Guatemala. Today, this archive constitutes an important element within the diplomatic and cultural relations between Guatemala and Japan. Based on this collection, I examine Yasu’s work and trace its trajectory into the diverse present venues of which it is a part.

With this project I aim to comprehend the ways in which individual migrants act as nodes within transcultural flows of knowledge and images, and the relevance of migrant photographs in a variety of contexts of knowledge production. The examination of the elements that converge in Yasu’s photographs and its reception throws into relief the understudied connections between Asia and Latin America. The analysis of contemporary contextualizations of his oeuvre will highlight the significant role played by archival photographs in the construction of a social memory of migration.