Photography as Event: Power, the Kodak Camera, and Territoriality in Early Twentieth-Century Tibet

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Abstract

This article rethinks the nature of power and its relation to territory in the photographic event. Focusing on thousands of photographs taken during the British Younghusband Expedition to Lhasa between 1903 and 1904, it reorients understandings of photography as either reproducing or enabling the “negotiation” or contestation of power inequalities between participants. It shows how, in the transitory relations between Tibetans, Chinese, and Britons during and after photographic events, photography acted as a means by which participants constituted themselves as responsible agents—as capable of responding and as “accountable”—in relation to one another and to Tibet as a political entity. Whether in photographs of Tibetans protesting British looting or of their “reading” periodicals containing photographs of themselves, photography, especially Kodak photography, proposed potential new ways of being politically “Tibetan” at a time when the meaning of Tibet as a territory was especially indeterminate. This article therefore examines how the shifting territorial meaning of Tibet, transformed by an ascendant Dalai Lama, weakening Qing empire, and Anglo-Russian competition, converged with transformations in the means of visually reflecting upon it. If photography entailed always-indeterminate power relations through which participants constituted themselves in relation to Tibet, then it also compels our own rethinking of Tibet itself as an event contingent on every event of photography, rather than pre-existing or “constructed” by it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)310-345
Number of pages36
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Volume59
Issue number2
Early online date18 Apr 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017

Keywords

  • photography
  • instrumentality
  • territory
  • event
  • power
  • Tibet
  • Young-Husband Expedition

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