The Visual Embodiment of Women in the Korea Mission Field

By Choi, Hyaeweol | Korean Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Visual Embodiment of Women in the Korea Mission Field


Choi, Hyaeweol, Korean Studies


In his preface to the catalogue of a pioneering exhibition of photography from the Korea mission field, Donald Clark argues that missionary photography offers a unique window on the Korean experience with the modern, and perhaps more importantly, the dynamic transcultural interactions between Koreans and Western missionaries. (1) To put it differently, missionary photography can serve as a critical device for excavating the complex realities missionaries and Korean converts experienced within the specific historical context of the Korean mission that began in the late nineteenth century. Despite its analytical importance for gaining a fuller understanding of Korean modern history as well as the history of Protestant Christianity in Korea, missionary photography has drawn relatively little attention from the scholarly community. (2) This article is a modest attempt to fill the gap by exploring the complementary role that photographic images fill in interpreting the Korea mission field when they are construed in relation to textual representations. It is also an endeavor to probe the ways in which photographs--either in natural or staged settings--were taken, circulated, and appropriated for the purposes of missionary goals. (3)

From the viewpoint of missionaries, photography was an indispensable tool for recording, categorizing, and publicizing "the other" as it captured the presumed essence of the local people, the unique, unusual objects and exotic natural setting, as well as the triumphs and tribulations of the mission field. According to Helen Gardner and Jude Philp, from the 1850s "missionaries around the world had turned the new science of photography to the service of the mission." (4) By the time the first group of American Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea in 1884, the modern form of photography had already gained popularity in the United States, (5) and especially from the 1890s, missionary photographs began to provide a much more vivid portrait of Koreans and Korean customs in the pages of mission journals. (6) Many images from the photographs, ranging from candid shots of scantily clad, dirty, vacant-looking locals in the streets to the staged group portraits of recent converts in front of the Western-style churches, schools, and hospitals newly built by the missionaries, present a visual manifestation of the imagined gulf between the West and the Other, the urgency to civilize the people of non-Christian countries by spreading the gospel, and the triumphant spirit of missionaries in Christianizing the world.

The early Korean Christian converts remained illiterate for the most part and thus could not leave much in the way of literature to convey their own experiences. The visual images of the people, objects, and surroundings projected through the camera can provide an alternative means to give voice to people who were not equipped to express their thoughts and experiences in writing. (7) To be sure, the converts were largely the subjects of missionary photography, and missionaries framed the images, determining how the Koreans would be presented, similar to the way they were represented in a particular way in the missionary discourse. However, the simple fact of their being in front of the camera and choosing certain poses (or being asked to pose in a certain way) in a specific time and place can offer a myriad of insights into the "referent" (i.e., the subject of the photograph). (8) In their analysis of the visual culture of American religions, David Morgan and Sally Promey stress that the analysis of images helps us understand the "nonverbal articulation" of place, status, power, alliance, affection, class, race, and gender. (9) It is in this "nonverbal articulation" of the material, institutional, discursive, and human conditions that visual images uniquely contribute to our understanding of the complex and dynamic interactions between the missionaries and the missionized.

The article specifically examines the visual embodiment of women in the Korea mission field.

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