This introduction contends that debates on militarized visual cultures need to consider the active role of images in shaping perspectives on war and in mediating memories of its aftermaths in and across Asia. Doing so entails taking account of quotidian experiences of war as well as reckoning with the limits of archives.
Histories of photography widely acknowledge the role of images during wartime. However, these histories largely focus on war photography as a genre. As I explain elsewhere, this approach is limited, because it promotes a discourse of objectivity, disavowing manipulation as an ongoing visual practice typical rather than exceptional in photo history; because it emphasizes and even valorizes the work of professional photographers, giving short shrift to the ordinary people who live through war and must reckon with its aftermath while only cursorily considering the many images that they make and circulate; and because it emphasizes spectacle while overlooking the quotidian.1
We miss much by viewing war in this way. Images of war are images at war within the history of photography.
Viewing war in this way disregards an extensive record of images that expand our overall picture of war, images that dwell on mundane moments and that register on quiet frequencies but also offer a glimpse at the broader impact of militarized visual cultures. Conversely, doing so makes hypervisible narratives of suffering and risks perpetuating this suffering. This is especially fraught in the case of atrocity images. Consider the notorious snapshots made by US guards at Abu Ghraib prison during the global War on Terror, which were created to humiliate unlawfully imprisoned Iraqi men and were circulated among soldiers as war trophies. The very making and sharing of the Abu Ghraib images enacted visual violence. As the artist Hito Steyerl put it in a review—and critique—of war photography, “Looking at [such images] felt excessive, violating the dignity of many of the subjects forced into complicity with the gaze of power, especially as many of the photographs were already meant . . . as active and operational forms of degradation, deterrence and torture.”2
So while it is necessary to reckon with such images as a record of war crimes that call for responsible witnessing, the way that we see, our decision to display select images, not to mention the decision to reproduce some images and not others, must be weighed against unseemly indulgence in and commodification of scenes of violence and suffering. This issue was brought to light at the Berlin Biennale, which in 2022 sparked protests after enlarged reproductions of the Abu Ghraib photographs were displayed next to an exhibit featuring Iraqi artists. Or consider the notorious perpetrator images made in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge to document prisoners at S-21 Security Camp (which in 1980 became Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). Preserved as a record of atrocity, the photographs were used as evidence in Cambodia's efforts toward transitional justice. Indeed they have a weighty role in memorializing a war that, as cultural critic Y-Dang Troeung trenchantly puts it, has too easily been forgotten.3 Given this context, it is no wonder that the efforts of a would-be artist to “improve” the S-21 photographs by colorizing them, going so far as to add smiles to the ID images, was met with such righteous fury that a news report lauding the project was quickly removed following international backlash.4
Photography does not just document war. Photography is instrumental to the waging of war, to memorializing efforts, and to willful acts of forgetting and historical revision. This special issue examines the function of photographs in the conduct of war and in reckoning with its ongoing legacies in and across Asia.
War is pervasive in Asia. To make this observation is not to assert that war is endemic to Asia or that Asia should be construed in reductively martial terms. As critics in Vietnamese studies remind us, Vietnam is a nation, not a war. Rather, to make this observation is to emphasize the condition of perpetual warfare as a global phenomenon whose far-reaching consequences are still being lived and felt.
The condition of perpetual war has shaped and reimagined Asia, whether in the shadow of imperial ambition, or in hope of revolutionary transformation, or in allegiance to the dream of postcolonial independence, or an uneasy combination of all three. This is manifest from the colonial era to the great wars of the twentieth century, to the so-called postwar period (a misnomer given how hot the Cold War erupted in proxy battlegrounds in the Global South, particularly in Southeast Asia) through to the global War on Terror. This is manifest in events that are not recognized as wars at all but instead are described in terms of conflict, action, operation, or emergency, as photographer and critic Sim Chi Yin details in the context of Malaysia during the global Cold War in her article “Methods of Memory: Time Travels in the Archives.” These terms serve as politically convenient obfuscations that distort and erase the nature and scale of violence, the gendered and racialized dimensions of this violence, and attest to uneven power relations that fester beyond cease-fires or peace agreements. How might we trace images at war if the event, or whatever choice euphemism is employed, is not even construed as a war? How might we trace images at war in the absence of photographs? Or in the face of archives that have yet to be opened or have yet to be identified as such? Or in contexts when archives emphasize and justify the voice and vision of the colonial conquest? These are just some of the questions that our contributors consider.
The articles included in this special issue highlight the related themes of gender, loss, and archival preservation. Taken together, they emphasize the need to expand the genre of war photography in order to understand the complex work that images at war play. In “Picturing Solidarity: Photography and Cuban Internationalism during the Vietnam War,” Michelle Chase considers the significance of the visual exchange of images of revolutionary women and their potential to activate a Global South network. Vindhya Buthpitiya also considers the implications of gendered representations of war in “How to Capture Birds of Freedom: Picturing Tamil Women at War,” an article that explores the ways that the figure of martial women was deployed by rebels and state agents alike to signify, on the one hand, revolutionary hope and, on the other hand, the threat of terrorism during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Buthpitiya's article also explores the ways these discourses unfold in digital reproductions of these images across social media as part of the afterlives of gendered violence in the Tamil diaspora. Santasil Mallik returns to the colonial archive to consider other dimensions of war that, though they may not look explicitly violent, nevertheless form the broader structure that makes war possible. In “GI Photos of Calcutta: Toward a Vernacular Understanding of War,” she considers US army photographer Clyde Waddell's evocation of a vernacular aesthetic in photographs taken during periods of respite from active duty. Mallik's examination of a body of work taken at the behest of GIs during periods of what the US military colloquially terms R&R—rest and recreation—highlights links between tourism and militarism. By demonstrating how this linkage drew from visual tropes of Calcutta while also adding to these tropes, Mallik also stretches the boundaries of Asian photography, suggesting that through his practice, Waddell contributed to how Calcutta came to be seen as a tourist destination in a postwar period still strongly fortified by a US military presence. In “Hong Kong in Transition: Photography and Liberation at the End of the Pacific War,” Nadine Attewell attends to the workings of colonial archives in the context of Hong Kong's unabated hopes for decolonization, focusing on discourses that arise in images contained within the Imperial War Museum in the UK and the ways Hong Kong people practiced a form of care that countered this paternalistic benevolence.
The two artists' contributions to the Portfolio for this special issue grapple with the challenges of doing justice to the memory of war, when the men and women who fought desperately and fiercely have been disappeared from all visible records. In “Who Is Missing? Albums and Archives,” Annu Palakunnathu Matthew reflects on this issue in the context of South Asian men's military efforts in service to the British imperial army during World War II. Sim Chi Yin critically reflects on a family photograph of her grandfather, a leftist leader during the Malaysian Emergency whom no one dared speak of, as a point of departure for her projects, including a recently published photo book, which trace the remains of the disappeared. Finally, in her review of Masaki Fujihata's “BeHere/1942,” Elena Tajima Creef examines how the Japanese new media artist seeks to activate memory, drawing on augmented reality to offer new insights in the photographic documentation of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.