Snapping and Wrapping: Personal Photography in Japan

by Richard Chalfen (Temple University)

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Richard Chalfen’s “Snapping and Wrapping” adds an important Japanese dimension to his decades of investigating the USA home media of family photo display, recording of Kodak Moments in life, and the role of visual representations for self and others to see. While he does reference digital picture-taking and uses in social media today, the heart of this book about Japanese home media dwells on the heyday of film photography, mainly the late 1940s to late 1990s.
This panoramic look includes chapters on pictures made and displayed at home, at work and travels, of pets, and even the use and recognition of unbidden ghosts accidentally photographed. In each arena, the social relationships, cultural traditions, and concern with the presentation of self are touched on to anchor the observations in lived experiences of Japanese who are interviewed. Cultural meaning sheds light on pictures; pictures shed light on society.
The concluding chapter brings together the many insights and dimensions of picture taking and uses in Japan, not as a final word on the subject, but rather as a way to open up the subject of everyday home media for scholarly work as a revealing lens on images made locally with local meanings and uses. Everyone learns from the project, the picture takers in Japan, his fellow social scientists, and the readers of this book. All that remains to do is to apply some of the questions and answers from these pages to one’s own collection of photographs from film or, these days, from digital sources.

Guven Peter Witteveen
Japan Ethnographer


In “Snapping and Wrapping”, we get an extension of Richard Chalfen’s examination of everyday photography. Chalfen, who is known for his book “Snapshot versions of life”, has now turned his attention to the quotidian use of photography in Japan. This is not about professional photography or even serious amateur photography. The book focuses on everyday photography and the physical (not digital) photos that result from this. Chalfen examines how photos and photo sharing are an element in the gifting network of Japanese society.
Chalfen examines the role of physical photos and the social processes associated with preparing, taking, curating, and showing photos in the lives of Japanese people. He examines the culturally specific ways that photos in Japan are taken, shared, and displayed (or hidden). Indeed, there are special ethics of showing photos in good taste.
Of special interest is Chalfen’s examination of photography vis-à-vis deceased pets to maintain their memory, hence the use of Hendry’s notion of “wrapping” where something is preserved, kept fresh, and secured. Perhaps most interestingly, he examines the physical photo as an object that, in the Shinto tradition, has its own spirit and thus has a certain type of agency. This comes out in the latter part of the book that examines the appearance of apparitions or Shinrei Shashin (spirit photos). These are snapshots that appear to contain the image of ghosts who are seen as a bad omen by the family. In this reckoning, if a relative dies in an unexpected manner (e.g., the 2011 earthquake/tsunami), or does not receive a proper funeral, their spirit may make itself known in this way.

Dr Rich Ling
Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information
Nanyang Technological University, SIngapore


A true authority since his seminal book ‘Snapshot Versions of Life’ (1987), Richard Chalfen’s new book, spans decades of involvement and thinking about a key domain of the visual culture of the everyday: when, why and how people make images and what they do with it afterwards. Focused on Japanese image practices this study brings about remarkable differences compared with American contexts, in terms of photographable moments, practices of displaying and sharing images, and with regard to expectations of privacy and issues of control. Each of these aspects underscores the central importance of the study of vernacular visual culture.
The author offers a very personal, accessible and empirically rich account of different dimensions and areas of personal photography, skillfully combining and integrating a variety of methods, experiences and sources of data. While current digital practices are all too often presented in an a-historic fashion as something totally new and unique, the firm grounding of this study in analogue practices as witnessed and theorized over many decades, offers a much-needed baseline for understanding elements of ‘continuity and change’ in the current era.
Chalfen remains at all times very judicious, respectful and nuanced in his assessment of cultural practices and beliefs, eschewing bold statements, easy explanations and generalizations, and avoiding stereotyping or exoticizing his subject. Faced with conflicting findings he explicitly ventures into ‘speculative reasoning’, yielding a wealth of interesting questions as well as the many pertinent observations which may serve as a solid toolbox for future research of private photography practices as unique gateways to studying ‘who we are and how we look’.
In short, ‘Snaps and Wraps’ is bound to attract a broad readership interested in learning about Japanese culture through a key vernacular practice, but more than that it will be an indispensable source of inspiration for researchers of private image production and consumption extending this line of enquiry into the digital networked age and other cultural settings.

Luc Pauwels
Professor of Visual Research Methods
University of Antwerp
Author of ‘Reframing Visual Social Science: Towards a more visual sociology and anthropology’


These days if fire or flood attacks your house the rescue squad will of course search inside first for any inhabitants. What will they rescue next? Photos of the inhabitants: family albums and pictures on the wall. (Or in East Asia, memorial tablets to the ancestors, along with family photos). If missing-the-morning-paper is a nuisance, losing the family albums is a disaster.
With our selfies and worldwide use of cell phone cameras, we are caught in mushrooming clouds of digital images taken and shared. More than ever, humans are constructing what Susan Sontag in On Photography called portable kits of images that bear witness to our connectedness. This is a growing dimension of how we use sociable media to bond with others, and it calls for new waves of empirical research. And contrary as it might seem, a good place to start is with Chalfen’s studies of analog-based personal picture snapping and wrapping a generation ago in Japan.
Japan happens to be his research site, but his case studies and techniques can easily be applied elsewhere, and benefit from cultural and temporal contrast. Two of his chapters offer pointed contrasts between Japanese and American practices (I especially like the chapter about wallet pictures in the U.S. and Japan). And throughout the book, he comments on personal photography in other countries as well. His concern is with images as objects that make meaning in social practice, with images in the flow of life, not fished out from it and deconstructed as aesthetic objects.
More than just a how-to-do-it guide, the book also distills what Chalfen has learned since 1987 when he published Snapshot Versions of Life. A leading investigator of the ways we visually document our little lives for ourselves, he doesn’t shy from asking questions that he can’t yet answer himself but urges others to pursue. And he encourages us to look up from microscopic moments of self-recording to larger cultural conundrums such as How is our sense of who we are bound up with how we look?

David Plath

'Snapping and Wrapping' represents an original study in Japanese visual culture, pictorial communication, and photographic studies. Vernacular visual culture is highlighted, stressing ordinary people and everyday life to explore photographic expressions of Japanese family life. The theme of “how people looked” is described from two closely related perspectives: how people appeared in their own photographs, and how people looked at specific features of their own lives with analog camera technology.
The book includes unexamined material based on a qualitative study involving personal fieldwork undertaken between 1993 and 2009. The metaphor of “wrapping culture” (Hendry) is suggested for ways of interpreting relationships of personal family photographs in conjunction with acknowledged cultural influences and values of Japanese culture. Across an introduction and six chapters, the book covers a series of research topics evoked by efforts to recover, repair, and return millions of photographs to survivors following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Memory, privacy and kinds of information control are reviewed as parts of strategies of sharing pictures, “presence” and the use of photographs for interpersonal interaction and communication. Throughout the monograph, emphasis is placed on understanding details of analog personal photography for potential comparisons to the intensely popular digitalization of photographic recordings and, in turn, facilitate making informed speculations for future photographic practice.
This book will be of interest to upper-level students, graduate students and scholars in the fields of media and culture, Asian Studies (especially Japanese visual culture), as well as those working on sensitive relationships of family, memory and representation.

LIST OF FIGURES

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

CHAPTER 1 Introduction

CHAPTER 2 Collections of Japanese Family Photographs

CHAPTER 3 Household Pictures and Wallet Photos in Japan and the U.S.

CHAPTER 4 Workplace Photography and Tourist/Travel Photography in Japan and the U.S.

CHAPTER 5 Snapshots in Japanese Pet Cemeteries

CHAPTER 6 Ghost Appearances in Japanese Snapshots

CHAPTER 7 “Wrapping Up” and Connecting the Threads

APPENDIX 1 Methods

APPENDIX 2 The Case of Orphan Album Photographs

REFERENCES

GLOSSARY A Wordlist of Relevant Japanese Terms

INDEX

Richard Chalfen, Ph.D., is currently Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Temple University (Philadelphia and Tokyo). He served as Senior Scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School and held the William Valentine Cole Chair as Visiting Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts. He taught four summer school sessions for the University of Bologna and taught visual anthropology and Japanese Visual Culture at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. Chalfen’s published books include Snapshot Versions of Life (1987), The Popular Press/The University of Wisconsin Press; Turning Leaves: The Photograph Collections of Two Japanese American Families (1991), University of New Mexico Press; Through Navajo Eyes—An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology (1997), University of New Mexico Press (with John Adair and Sol Worth); Visual Research Methods and Issues of Voice (2010), Special Issue of Visual Studies 25(3) (co-edited with Wendy Luttrell); and Photogaffes — Family Snapshots and Social Dilemmas (2012), Dog Ear Publishing. He is past Chair of the Anthropology Department at Temple, past president of the American Anthropological Association's Society of Visual Anthropology and received the Society of Visual Anthropology’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

3.11, wrapping culture, photographic practice, everyday life, vernacular culture, casual photographer, home media, visual communication, analog photography, digital photography, orphan albums, flea markets, snapshots, photo display, photo-stickers, pictorial lives, picture worthy, pragmatic reasoning, ethnographic, cross-cultural, salvage projects, stereotypes, fieldwork, memory, visual research methods, descriptive framework, Pierre Bourdieu, Joy Hendry, David/Evelyn Reisman, Kerry Ross, Mette Sandbye, Martin Hand, Donald Richie

Bibliographic Information

Book Title
Snapping and Wrapping: Personal Photography in Japan
ISBN
978-1-64889-259-2
Edition
1st
Number of pages
232
Physical size
PDF
Illustrations
60 B&W
Publication date
June 2021
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