Subjectivity and Objectivity: Photography, Family, and the Historian

Benjamin Bryce

I recently submitted an article manuscript to a scholarly journal about my great-great grandfather, Cooper Robinson, and his photography in Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a social historian of migration, I have long been interested in family, but I had never done work on my own family. My personal, albeit distant, relationship to Robinson makes me, the professional historian, uneasy. In the research phase and when writing the journal article, I worried about how my subject position would negatively affect my analysis. Did I care more than I should about one Canadian missionary and his photographs? Was I being sufficiently critical? By looking at just one, albeit large, photo collection, did I miss the opportunity to make a bigger intervention on missionaries and photography?

Cooper Robinson was the first and one of the longest-serving Canadian Anglican missionaries in Japan, and he worked mainly in Nagoya and Gifu between 1888 and 1925. He also left behind over four thousand images of Japan recorded on glass plates, printed pictures, and postcards, which were recently donated by my father’s cousins to UBC Rare Books and Special Collections. Over three hundred of his photographs also found their way into the General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada and many were published in religious periodicals in the early twentieth century.

The images offer glimpses of landscapes, workers, converts to Christianity, the Robinson family, and other missionaries,but they also tell us about the photographer himself and, as a result, about the life and the history of Canadian missionary activity in Japan. These visual sources uncover angles that text alone cannot. In his lantern lectures that he gave at churches across Canada when on furlough and in the postcards he made and sent across the Pacific, Cooper Robinson curated a visual message of Japan and shared it with thousands of Canadians.

A man with two small children on his back.

Figure 1 – Cooper, Hilda, and Cuthbert Robinson, 1900, Source: UBC Books and Special Collections, John Cooper Robinson collection, RBSC-ARC-1757-PH-2985,

Our discipline clings to a belief in a certain degree of objectivity, and historians shy away from flagging our subjectivity more than other scholars. Yet just as Gisele Freund reminds us that photographs have only “an illusory objectivity,” we could say the same about historical writing.[1] And as Susan Sontag notes in her classic series of essays On Photography, “Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe. They are … an ethics of seeing.” I think that it is also worth recognizing that in choosing historical topics, we – as historians of any topic – also enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe.

Ashley Barnwell notes that “family history research…is a practice of self-authentication, but also a creative act of revisionist life writing.”[2]Will uncovering more about one specific ancestor affirm or create a specific identity and understanding of the past for me and other family members when they read my academic, peer-reviewed article? Does my choice to submit my article to a scholarly journal give even more power to a specific family history?

Six people standing on a road and in a ditch carrying cocoons

Figure 2 – Men and Women carrying cocoons, 1920, Source: UBC Books and Special Collections, John Cooper Robinson collection, RSBC-ARC-1757-PH-0343.

Because of what I felt was a tenuous connection to the object of my research, I did not worry much about what I would do if I found in Cooper Robinson’s photography the orientalist, colonizing gaze of a man bent on cultural assimilation. Perhaps I was lucky that such topics did not jump out in the photographs and that I did not need to actually face the dilemma.

That said, like many other families, whether our grandparents or great-grandparents had some international connection or were settlers somewhere in North America, my own family’s collective historical memory lacks a critical lens. The novelty of global travel and foreign birth is seen in an isolated and fragmentary way, much like a photograph. The connections to Japan are not discussed in the broader context of European imperialism and colonialism, unequal power relations, and a system of race relations that disproportionately benefitted Euro-North Americans.

Three women standing on a street carrying children on their back

Figure 3 – Japanese girls and woman carrying babies on backs, Source: UBC Books and Special Collections, John Cooper Robinson collection, RSBC-ARC-1757-PH-1620.

As the great-great-grandson of the photographer, researching and writing a scholarly article on photography was an instructive exercise in subjectivity and objectivity.The personal connection led me to a research methodology that I have not had with other projects. Having the e-mail addresses of many of Cooper Robinson’s descendants has allowed me to check facts. Having an uncle who sent me Robinson’s obituary and scans of other family photographs not in publicly-accessible archives, a father who mailed me a copy of Robinson’s 1912 book, The Island Empire of the East, and a cousin who gave me Cooper Robinson’s maps of missionary activities in Japan helped speed things up and opened doors in ways that I had not experienced when doing “subjective” and “professional” research on non-family members. My personal, or at least genetic, relationship with this historical subject has raised for me several methodological questions about objectivity, and one new challenge – compared to non-personal topics – has been to decide how to discuss my connection to the subject of my research.

Benjamin Bryce is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the author of To Belong in Buenos Aires: Germans, Argentines, and the Rise of a Pluralist Society (Stanford, 2018) and co-editor of Making Citizens in Argentina (Pittsburgh, 2017).

Editor’s note: The academic article based on the research featured in this post can be found here.


[1]Gisele Freund, Photography and Society, quoted in Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), vii.

[2]Ashley Barnwell, “The Genealogy Craze: Authoring an Authentic Identity through Family History Research,” Life Writing10, no. 3 (2013): 263.

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