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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Behind the Camera: Digital Interventions in the History of Japanese Women Photographers

by Paula Curtis on 2022-12-16T10:28:00-05:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Carrie Cushman, Edith Dale Monson Gallery Director/Curator at the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford
Kelly McCormick, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of British Columbia

Women have been a vital part of the history of Japanese photography. Yet their contributions have been both underrepresented and undervalued in scholarly materials and knowledge production, hindering the ability of researchers and educators to include their stories. The website Behind the Camera: Gender, Power, and Politics in the History of Japanese Photography launched in 2022 as a response to this dearth of resources on women in the history of Japanese photography for teaching purposes and as a starting point to inspire new directions in research on the gender history of Japanese photography.

There is still no comprehensive history of Japanese women photographers in Japanese or English; both photography in Japan and womens’ role in its development are severely lacking among the available digitized archival material on modern Japanese visual culture hosted by universities, libraries, and arts institutions in North America, Europe, and Japan. Furthermore, many attempts to write their histories have been undermined by historiographical traditions that frame women’s contributions to the field of photography as separate. Namely, critics, scholars, and exhibitions around the world have often explained women’s participation in photography as either driven by gendered motivations or described their participation as limited by the supposed social, physical, and technical limitations that women face. At its core, Behind the Camera is envisioned as an open-source, collaborative website that provides opportunities for intervention and activism in the representation of women’s multifaceted participation in the world of photography.

Two-page spread depicting a women’s camera club in Fujin Kurabu, 1956.


Behind the Camera concerns women as makers, but also as models, technicians, consumers, and participants in the social construction of photography. Our project sees photography as a visual technology, an art form, a mode of communication, and a commercial practice. Beyond accounting for historical omissions, we aim to interrogate the overwhelmingly male-centered historiography of photography by recruiting scholars from around the world to become information activists. The website, presented entirely in English and Japanese, features a series of learning modules, each accompanied by short Open Education Resource (OER) lecture videos created by international experts, the centerpiece of their respective topical sections. These videos are each complemented by a digitized archive of related photographs, an annotated bibliography, and an interactive timeline that tracks women photographer’s activities in relation to Japanese history and the global history of photography. Our interdisciplinary team of contributors seeks to make diverse scholarly perspectives and archival materials available across linguistic boundaries and to provide new ways for students and the public to engage with digitized and translated primary source materials and artist interviews.

Our contributors are recruited through a combination of outreach and open invitation. Each year we seek out a new cohort of experts on the history of photography, but we also encourage those interested in contributing a module to contact us with a proposal. In the instructions that we provide to contributors, we ask them to model their video presentation on a first-year university course lecture with the goal that a wide range of viewers will be captivated and inspired to learn more about the ideas introduced. Each lecture provides a brief contextual introduction before focusing on the main theme, at which point the presenter outlines key examples with engaging visuals, offers review questions for the viewer’s consideration, and summarizes how their findings relate to the big issues at stake. By pairing the videos with image galleries, annotated bibliographies, biographies, and the first and most comprehensive interactive timeline of the activities of Japanese women photographers, the website forms a complete package for sustaining ongoing visitor engagement. Those who visit initially to learn about the stories of women who ran portrait studios in the nineteenth century may find their way to a critical discussion on strategies for curating the work of male photographers who have abused their positions of power in the contemporary era. Furthermore, the site facilitates a participatory learning experience for those who use the newly digitized image galleries as a jumping off point for further research to create their own scholarly and artistic works.

Sample of modules currently available on Behind the Camera.

By decentering any one perspective and adding new modules annually, Behind the Camera approaches art history as a collective practice. In the words of feminist art historians Victoria Horne and Amy Tobin, “collectivizing knowledge production can destabilize the belief in a singular, objective authority and offer instead politically situated examinations of the past, but it also (crucially) allows us to disrupt our own assumptions by staging an encounter between various voices and positions.” [1] Starting from a position of critical engagement with existing narratives and histories, the collaborative authorship of Behind the Camera is an experiment in initiating and directing new conversations, rather than a definitive solution or end point. The combination of different forms of media and bilingual resources addresses what Monika Sengul-Jones calls the “socio-technical process” of how biases and gendering can be built into crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and “how axes of power work through the interlocking of social processes and technical procedures.” [2] Mindful to not recreate oppressive structures that have long distorted the histories of women in photography, each author understands the information that they contribute to Behind the Camera as a form of participation in new conversations.

For one scholar, the invitation to participate in Behind the Camera led to the formation of an entirely new, crowd-sourced photographic archive. Elena Tajima Creef, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, contributed a module related to her research on the lives of World War II Japanese war brides, the estimated 40 to 50,000 women who married United States servicemen and relocated to the U.S. in the postwar decades. 

(right) Atsuko Craft with daughters Rebecca and Lucy in front of the family Volkswagen van, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, 1960, Courtesy of Lucy Craft. Featured in Dr. Elena Creef's module, "Looking for a History of Photography for WWII Japanese War Brides.”

The daughter of a war bride herself, Creef asks how we can construct photographic history for a group of immigrant women who have been largely invisible within both Japanese and American histories. Creef is at the forefront of exploring the previously undervalued role that vernacular photography can play in writing history. Upon tapping into her mother’s network of fellow war brides, she received dozens of submissions of photos pulled from family albums that, when analyzed collectively, reveal subtle patterns and meanings about the ways that these women built lives for themselves in a foreign land. Her video lecture begins with an analysis of those patterns, providing a guide for how the photographs can be read. What is more, the annotated bibliography and image archive that accompany her lecture open the door for further much-needed conversations and research on this understudied topic.

In many lectures, scholars introduce primary source materials and existing photographic archives and analyze them in new and captivating ways. Christina Spiker, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Art History at St. Olaf College, skillfully examines photographs made for the foreign tourist market in late-nineteenth-century Japan in Charles Appleton Longfellow’s travel albums, now housed in the collection of the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Dr. Spiker not only analyzes the colonial gaze that inflects photographs of Ainu women (indigenous to what is now known as Hokkaido), but she also introduces the Longfellow House’s digitized collection of travel albums made for the tourist market in Japan. Future scholars can deploy Dr. Spiker’s critical analysis tools to continue to explore and reveal new insights about this large collection of photographs.

View from Dr. Christina Spiker’s lecture video, “Ainu Representation and Gender in Japanese Photography.”

The interactive timeline of Japanese women photographers is another example of how the labor of collaboration and co-authorship make possible an entirely new way of seeing, researching, and writing history. Working closely with Steven Geofrey, a visionary software developer in data visualization, we created a new way to make information related to Japanese women photographers visible and legible across different registers. As viewers select photographers on the timeline, they can learn about their individual career trajectories and see their work in relation to major events in Japanese history and the global histories of photography. This timeline will continue to grow as more information and archives are uncovered.

Working with many research assistants to compile the contents, we encountered a paucity of data in the nineteenth century in contrast with an overabundance of data for the mid-1990s onward when women became professional photographers in increasingly large numbers. We were faced with the challenge of making the archives we uncovered more visible, while at the same time having to set a limit to that visibility for the sake of the format and design. Ultimately, we decided to end the timeline in the year 2000 with the understanding that contemporary women photographers, while still facing extreme prejudices in the field, are able to maintain a greater degree of representation in the digital realm than their more historical counterparts. As Steven Geofrey weighed in, whether it is “a camera, a news article, a data set, an archive, or a visualization of data,” technologies of seeing “all involve a process of design that makes choices about what should be or is worthy of being visible and what should be left out.” [3]

View of the interactive timeline, designed by Steven Geofrey for Behind the Camera.

Behind the Camera is an entry point for critically examining how we tell history and whose stories are considered worthy of being told. It expands access to archival materials and scholarly perspectives by delivering all content in English and Japanese and encourages viewers to become historians, mobilized by access to new primary sources, image archives, and interactive learning modules. In its open-ended feminist praxis, Behind the Camera pushes viewers to start asking questions about how historical information has been organized and how they might begin to write new types of histories. A history of Japanese photography that includes diaspora communities across the globe, women who owned their own commercial photography businesses, or those who both supported and resisted colonial empires—these histories are waiting to be told!

[1] Victoria Horne and Amy Tobin, "an unfinished revolution in art historiography, or how to write a feminist art history” Feminist Review No. 107 (2014): 77.

[2] Monika Sengul-Jones, “Intervening in Wikipedia: Feminist Inquiries and Opportunities” in Lauren S. Berliner and Ron Krabill, eds. Feminist Interventions in Participatory Media: Pedagogy, Publics, Practice (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 19.

[3] Steven Geofrey, “Japanese Visual Culture in the Digital Humanities: Strategies for Engagement, Accessibility, and Design,” Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference, 2022.

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