Archival Incidents, or What is it with Pictures?

Sean Malloy has withdrawn the pictures once touted as “newly discovered” photographs of Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing. Over the last few days, after the pictures were reported by HNN, the Huffington Post, and Wired, among others, members of the Japanese studies community took a closer look and began to doubt. I saw it unfold at H-Japan: questions about the clothing worn by the people standing in the photos, injuries that didn’t match the atomic bombing, topography issues. Most of all, there were similarities to other known pictures from the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the anti-Korean/anti-leftist massacres which followed: the injuries, topography and clothing are more consistent with that disaster/atrocity. How the pictures acquired the Hiroshima story is still a mystery though, as one commenter pointed out, there’s a three day gap between the bombing and the first known pictures which we’d dearly love to fill.

By a curious coincidence, I (and a lot of other innocent scholars of Asia, I warrant) got an email from an ironically named Japanese group1 whose sole purpose is to deny the realities of Japanese WWII atrocities, and one of their highlight publications is an attempt to debunk as many Nanjing Massacre photographs as possible. Daqing Yang, one of the premier scholars on the Nanjing Massacre has written

Even photographic evidence, as many of them have come to realize, can be fraught with danger if its origins cannot be ascertained. When a conservative Japanese daily newspaper made a news story out of a wartime photograph used with the wrong caption in Kasahara’s book, he offered a swift public apology for his negligence and replaced the photograph.94 One of Kasahara’s historian colleagues has included a cautionary note about the use of photographic evidence in a college textbook on historical sources, using the Rape of Nanjing as an example.95

A few days back, peacay wrote me to get clarification on a satirical map found in the ‘Block Prints of the Chinese Revolution’ collection at Princeton. The problem with it, what was confusing peacay, is that the map seemed to be too broad and didn’t say much about the 1911 Revolution. The archival commentary wasn’t helpful, being a general statement about the whole collection. So, I got a good look at it and reported back that it was actually a Japanese-drawn (that much peacay already knew, which is why I got the call) WWI satire, dated late 1914, and the sum total of Chinese commentary was to depict China as a Mandarin pig, anxiously looking at a rain gauge. (peacay has a nice detail shot of it) The rest of the collection seems to actually be from Shanghai and relate to the 1911 revolution (at least, I assume Alan would have said something!). I don’t know that Princeton is going to withdraw the out-of-place image — they’ve already got a disclaimer on the collection saying that they don’t endorse any of the sentiments contained therein — but I expect that their in-house cataloging is more detailed and accurate. I hope so, but that’s no protection for researchers who aren’t in New Jersey.

This is going to come up more and more: as archives and collections become more public, the likelihood of discovering errors (or worse, propogating them in our research) is going to increase. As others have noted, I’m sure, historians are rarely trained specifically in the critical use of visual evidence, photographic or artistic. I’ve seen some grossly overinterpreted and casually thoughtless uses of visual materials.2 Nor are many archivists, though we rely heavily on their record-keeping and expertise. But it’s getting harder and harder to excuse this kind of carelessness, while our training is not at all keeping up with the materials we’re expected to use.

  1. I’ll tell you if you really want, but I don’t want to give them any more publicity than they deserve []
  2. I used a world history textbook once which both: a. presented a photograph of modern African folk dancers in a chapter on pre-1500 African history, the only instance in which a modern photo was used as evidence in a pre-modern context; b. and claimed that the solemn expressions on native Americans in a mid-19c picture were evidence of their social and cultural plight instead of the long exposures of contemporary technology []

2 Responses to “Archival Incidents, or What is it with Pictures?”

  1. peacay says:

    One thing in Princeton’s defense, which they plainly advise, is that the set of prints was given to them as a pre-formed collection from an old student.

    So one can criticise Princeton for not providing individual commentary on each print perhaps, but the inclusion of an outlier map (to be diplomatic about it) wasn’t obviously intentional on their part.

    I’m not saying there wasn’t necessarily carelessness or that it was not properly researched – those situations may also be true – but this is one instance where I can imagine a fairly innocent chain of events/decisions contributing to the map turning up in the Xinhai Revolution collection. I think I’ll drop them a line anyway. Thanks again Jonathan.

  2. I really didn’t mean to imply that there was any nefarious intent to the error, though I can see how the context may have given that impression. Merely that these sorts of errors seem to be shockingly common and that we are not terribly well equipped to deal with them.

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