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Photographic Memory

Photographic Memory

Photo historian Jung Joon Lee brings a keen eye and an international perspective to her new position as an assistant professor of the History of Art and Visual Culture.

Photographs of military camptowns towns—like this one in Okinawa, Japan by Canadian photographer Greg Girard—drove Lee to ask difficult questions about how we remember war.

In her current research project, photo historian and newly hired Assistant Professor Jung Joon Lee is focusing on the relationship between photography and militarism in South Korean society. After starting with art photography she encountered in books and exhibitions, she expanded her research to include vernacular photographs and the sociopolitical context in which they were made.

Lee is particularly intrigued by images of children born to Korean mothers and American GI fathers in the camptowns that sprang up alongside American military bases beginning in 1945. These biracial children were taken from their mothers (many of them government-sanctioned sex workers) and shipped to the US as orphans to be adopted by American families.

“The photographs did not receive much attention until the late 1990s, partly because they have been censored by the Korean government,” Lee explains, “making these ‘orphans’ invisible. I’m interested in this notion of erasing history and how images can create and alter the accepted narrative. The absence of photographs can be as significant as their presence. What has been excluded and why?”

Lee’s ongoing study into the ways visual imagery has played into South Korea’s militarization since World War II informs her teaching in RISD’s History of Art + Visual Culture department. “I’m now teaching one class investigating how identity becomes a mode of inquiry through photo portraiture and another on documentary photography as contemporary art,” she explains.

“RISD students are all so engaged,” Lee notes, adding that she hopes to develop a new class on photography and militarism based on her own research, perhaps with a global perspective. “The freedom that we have at RISD is really great,” she says.

Lee began thinking about issues of militarism in response to the handful of iconic images that shaped America’s perception of the Vietnam War—Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese general shooting a suspected Viet Cong point blank, for example, and Nick Ut’s 1972 image of injured South Vietnamese children running through the streets after a napalm attack.

“I’m interested in how memories are constructed through images—especially the memory of war,” says Lee. “Why are certain photos chosen to be republished again and again? What kinds of narratives do they create?”

That interest led Lee to the US to study Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center. After earning a PhD, she went on to teach as an assistant professor at CUNY Queensborough Community College.

In late September, Lee presented her work at UC Berkeley’s Center for Korean Studies as part of a conference on Korean War camptowns. Biracial Korean-American adoptees seeking information about their birth parents attended and one of them actually appeared as a five-year-old boy in a photograph she showed.

“Korean photographers wanted to document what was going on in the camp towns,” says Lee, “sometimes for personal reasons. One of the photographers decided to take pictures because his sister was volunteering at an orphanage.

“Photography is such an inviting medium,” Lee adds. “It’s so familiar and so integral to our everyday lives that almost everyone is comfortable talking about it. At the same time it enables us to explore some of our most complex cultural issues. That combination of accessibility and complexity is what inspired me to get started as an art historian.”

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