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The Field and the Viewfinder: Explorations in Vernacular Missionary Photography and Modern Chinese History

Sat, March 28, 5:00 to 7:00pm, Chicago Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Floor: Level 2, Missouri


This presentation examines the photography of American Protestant and Catholic missionaries in 20th century China in the context of transnational missionary experience and perceptions of localized Christianity. The paper focuses on interdisciplinary methodological approaches as well as the benefits and challenges of investigating missionary photographs. Selected visual materials from both private and institutional collections are discussed as comparative case studies. By looking at themes and content in relation to religious and cultural history, the paper argues that vernacular visual production was a vital element of the missionary enterprise and contributed to a modern global perspective on China and Chinese Christian identity. Visual practices “on the ground” mediated cross-cultural encounters between missionaries and local Chinese people, while visual material circulation enabled supporting communities abroad to see and imagine these encounters in the context of transnational Christianity. The paper suggests that missionaries across various denominations created a rich body of significantly unexplored images documenting lived experience and historical change in China, unparalleled by secular sources in its collective size, temporal scope, and local engagement relating to modern China, religion, and US presence in East Asia.