Photography and the medium : a photographic dialogue in China

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Communications and Arts


Education and Arts

First Advisor

Associate Professor Rod Giblett

Second Advisor

Dr Panizza Allmark


Using documentary photography with an ethnographic approach, this practice-ledbresearch project focuses on a case study of a Han-Chinese woman called Zai yu who practices mediumship in urban China. It aims to explore the relationships between herbmediumship practice and the medium of photography.

During a mediumship session, a spirit is represented as temporarily displacing the agency of the medium by entering his/her body and causing a change of identity. For the duration of the episode, the spirit can potentially provide access to divine powers and knowledge in order to counsel and to heal. In China the use of mediumship appears since the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.E.) and despite modernization, rationalization, and the severe persecutions of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), mediumship and other divinatory practices have remained prevalent.

Over two field trips to China in 2009 and 2010, I witnessed many of these mediumship sessions when Zai yu was embodied by various spirit entities. I became interested in Zai yu’s mediumship practice as a form of meta-communication and representation because this practice raises some interesting parallels and differences with the medium of photography. Inspired by both contemporary and ancient ideologies, Zai yu’s practice provides a link between the past, present and future, the material and the spiritual, the living and the dead – concepts that have been explored in relation to photographic theory by cultural critics such as Benjamin (1931), Sontag (1978) Barthes (1981) and Cadava (1997). Zai yu’s mediumship practice provides a visually rich avenue to further explore these concepts, among others. I argue that analysing some of the parallels between divination (in particular mediumship) and photography can facilitate a re-engagement with photography’s intrinsic qualities. This is especially valuable in a digital age when the medium is being radically redefined and some of these qualities, which Benjamin already declared were in decline after photography became mechanically reproducible in the 1850s, are further anesthetized.

This research project includes a book of photographs of Zai yu and her daily life entitled Medium and a written component contextualizing the images and explicating the theoretical imperatives that motivated the project. As well as contributing to photographic theory by exploring concepts related to time, death and absent-presence, this research also aims to add to the knowledge of divination practices such as mediumship in urban China, a neglected field of inquiry. By using an ethnographic approach, the research project also aims to add to the development of using documentary photography ethically as a research tool and as a form of expression and representation.

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