Images from a Stolen Camera: An Autoethnographic Recursion

Heinz Insu Fenkl

As a writer with training in literary theory and anthropology, this is my first formal attempt at converging the three endeavors into a coherent mode of expression and analysis; what I'm presenting addresses literary and ethnographic theory while also performing a sort of discursive meta-nostalgia regarding my own life. Because I am both the writer and the analyst, my reading of my own work is simultaneously privileged and compromised. I have to confess this is a rather weird and disconcerting process. For now, I am viewing my paper as another link in the hermeneutic circle of text and interpretation, but because I am examining my work from both the inside and the outside, part of my task is to ex-pose the smoke and mirrors of the writer's craft-the writerly "pose" allowed both the fiction writer and the ethnographer.

"Image from a Stolen Camera" is part of a chapter from my forthcoming autobiogrpahical novel,Memories of My Ghost Brother. 1 The narrative is a bracketed or book-ended story in which a mature narrator, in the process of reflecting on a photo in a family album, remembers an incident in which he and his best friend participated in the theft of a camera from a naive GI.2 The narrator of "Stolen Camera," in dramatizing the camera theft and in reflecting consciously on the ironies associated with the later death of his friend from leukemia, retroactively sifts through layers of moral, personal, and political meanings. In this recursion, my aim is to illuminate some of those meanings while demonstrating yet other layers.

Various dramatic ironies, which are perhaps the key features of the narrative, occur through complex sets of displacements. These essentially have to do with the multiply divergent consciousnesses of: 1) the young, naive narrator, who is also the "actor" in the camera theft episode; 2) the older, more sophisticated, narrator who brackets the drama of the story in italicized, self-conscious rumination; 3) the consciousness-which I will call the "narrative consciousness"-which constitutes the complex of conscious, unconscious, and coincidental meanings that arise in the narrative -a feature not necessarily convergent with the writer's (my) original "intent"; and finally; 4) the reader, who responds to these various conscious and unconscious layers of meaning and formulates yet another consciousness in resonating with ironic conjunctions and disjunctions among the various levels of the narrative.

Because of time constraints, I will not have time to do justice to all of the concerns I've just listed, so let me begin by contextualizing my "recursion" as a form of ethnographic fiction. Afterwards, in keeping with the theme of this conference, I will contour my discussion of "Stolen Camera" around the rubric of multiple displacements.

Ethnographic Writing
I believe that ethnographic writing is fictional not only in the sense that good ethnographies are "true fictions" as James Clifford suggests in his introduction to Writing Culture (6), but in the sense that the form has implicit and often unconscious rhetorical agendas that are designed to hide and yet simultaneously transmit meaning to both the reader and the writer-much in the same way as the category of writing we commonly call "fiction." That a fiction communicates particular messages to the reader is considered a conscious and willful act on the writer's part whereas a writer communicating with the self through his or her fiction is generally a topic addressed in psychobiography, psychological deconstruction, or in writing workshops. But the writer of fiction, though he or she has particular privileges and obligations in the socially constructed role of "artist," is not bound to other layers of moral and ethical standards by the inherent "scientific"truth claims of anthropology; the fiction writer is expected to establish such wrenches-in-the-works like countertransference as tools for getting closer to the subject.

In anthropology, the ethnographic writer faces an odd problem. The discipline traditionally has accepted the internal truth claims so fully that although it engaged and critiqued the explicit rhetoric of its texts, it forgot to examine the actual construction of its texts as pieces of writing until relatively recent times. As Clifford notes,"In classical ethnographies the voice of the author was always manifest, but the conventions of textual presentation and reading forbade too close a connection between authorial style and the reality represented" (13). The recent convergence of anthropology with literary and critical theory has been a simultaneous boost and bane for the ethnographic writer.

The ethnographer is generally well-intentioned but forced in ironic ways to be dishonest because s/he does not-or, by a complex of pressures, is not permitted to-consciously state the agenda of his or her narrative rhetoric to the reader.3 The use of narrative rhetoric has always been commonplace in ethnographic writing although we have only recently begun to engage the topic explicitly. To give a few widely-spaced examples, one might note Margaret Mead's use of description as rhetoric in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies-the way her depiction of landscape predispose the reader to formulate particular visceral reactions to the Mundugumor, Arapesh, and Tchambuli which she then uses as a foundation for theoretical rhetoric; Clifford Geert uses the classic storytelling device of self-authentication in relation to subject as the opening moves for his Balinese cockfight chapter ofThe Interpretation of Cultures; and more recently, Lila Abu Lughod uses the travel narrative form to open herVeiled Sentiments.4

Narrative rhetoric seems antithetical to scientific writing-rather like incorporating magicians' tricks into a chemistry experiment-and yet a sophisticated reader can easily determine that all significant ethnographies and monographs in anthropology have done precisely that. During my time as a graduate student in the social anthropology program at the University of California, Davis, I became both confused and disillusioned by the problems of ethnographic writing. After completing an MFA in creative writing, I had entered the anthropology program initially as a folklorist, but the more I became engaged in the topical theoretical issues, the more I found myself preoccupied with the issue of writing. Years later, having withdrawn from my program to teach and write, I began"Stolen Camera" with several clear intentions in mind.

Latent Images
If I were speaking from my writerly pose, I would say that the work itself should answer all questions of intention or meaning in and of itself. But since I watched over my own shoulder as I wrote the narrative, and since I have gone back and re-examined it with particular theoretical questions in mind, I feel I am able to ex-pose it in useful ways.

"Stolen Camera" is basically a displaced ethnographic narrative. Its critical and rhetorical meanings have been intercepted and turned into fiction, where I believe they work more "honestly" and effectively because the visceral rhetoric of the narrative and its style is more compelling in the genre of fiction than in the genre of ethnography (in which the willful use of certain narrative strategies would be suspect). The form of "Stolen Camera" allowed me to simultaneously engage and disengage from emotional and academic issues by shifting frames of reference.

So, in the storytelling tradition, let me briefly establish some authenticity for the narrative by giving you its literary provenance: "Stolen Camera" is almost entirely true. The incidents described occurred in Pup'yong, Korea, outside the U.S. military base called ASCOM (Army Service COMmand) in the summer of 1967 when I was seven years old. The bracketing narrative refers to a time in 1981 or 1982, when I was visiting my mother in Castroville, California during vacation from Vassar College. I've fictionalized some of the names in the narrative, but both Kisu and Jani are real people who actually suffered the fates they suffer in the narrative. I wrote "Stolen Camera" in the spring of 1992 in Portland Oregon.5

There are significant spatial, temporal, and psychological displacements between the camera theft incident and its documentation in narrative, but even before the story was written, there were important displacements to which it was linked through the circumstances of my birth.

My father's life was a series of geographical displacements. He was displaced during his childhood when the Germans annexed the Sudetenland. He was born in a town near Prague, but then moved to a town in southern Germany near Munich with the other displaced Sudeten Germans, people who were outsiders while they were Czech, and who ironically became outsiders once again when they were absorbed into Germany. My father was a Hitler Youth, and when Germany fell, he was in a military academy digging tank traps. Had he been a few years older, he would have been in one of the youthful SS units that served as Germany's last line of defense against the Russians. After the end of the war, he served in the Labor Service, which was a German contingent in black uniforms working under the U.S. Army during the reconstruction. In 1952, he came to the U.S. and worked for the Maryknoll fathers on a dairy farm before he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea where he met my mother in the late 50s. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was the sergeant of the honor guard at Panmunjom (in Korea's Demilitarized Zone) for several years, but he was also stationed in Germany and in various states before he his retirement and death due to an Agent Orange-related cancer.

My mother's life was also full of displacements, even before she married my father and was forced to move with him every time his duty station changed. During the Korean War, she didn't want to hide out in the hills with the other women of her village, so she dressed as a boy and traveled around the country. Her family was not divided by the war since their clan of Lees was localized around Sambongni, but because she was the youngest of ten children, she was shuttled from relative to relative after the death of her parents, when the family land was parceled out among the sons. The major displacements in her life were also isolations-she had to move to Washington state, then Germany, then various states to follow my father after their marriage. She formed ties with other Korean wives or-when there were no Koreans-with Japanese wives of U.S. servicemen. (It's ironic that the history of Korean-Japanese animosity gets forgotten when the women are both subordinated to their husbands in the U.S. military.)

My mother is also displaced in other, unexpected ways. When she returns to Korea, she exists in a liminal space: among her relatives, she dines and plays cards with the men; in Seoul she seems on the one hand to be alienated and out of place, but in certain neighborhoods and settings she behaves like a native. The liminality of her gender role in the family and her odd relation to Korean culture-these are all due to her mixed marriage, her long absence from her homeland, her American citizenship, and her past experience as a black marketer.

It's probably clear by now that the study of anthropology was useful for me in a very personal way because it helped me understand my history and experience from outside, with a certain pretense of objectivity. I found myself profoundly affected by these various layers of displacements which I can now identify, and I found in the discipline a language for theorizing about them, but when it came to expressing my relation to them, there were problems. For one, it seemed that only senior anthropologists with years of fieldwork and scholarship behind them were reflecting on their own experiences as worthy topics for books. It seemed unlikely that the scholars with whom I had been working would permit me to examine myself as an ethnographic subject. I suppose I could have proposed fieldwork in the sort of kichich'on6 near which I grew up, but I felt a certain sense of urgency to do something with my material.

I had completed a draft of my autobiographical novel for my MFA, but after my subsequent year in Korea on a Fulbright grant and my entry into the anthropology program, it had become clear to me how ill-equipped I had been to convey the themes and concerns I found so important. In retrospect, I would say that I was also lacking certain skills as a writer. Also, I had become rather disappointed by ethnography as writing (because its constraints make it inherently less readable), by the discourse on ethnographic writing (especially after seeing Tony Hillerman, the best-selling mystery writer, command as much respect as Paul Rabinow on a panel on ethnographic writing held in Berkeley), and particularly by seeing the sorts of intellectual and personal crises behind works like Bohannan/Bowen's Return to Laughter and Turnbull's The Mountain People.

Coming from a background in which my parents, my siblings, and I embodied significant aspects of recent Korean history, I wanted to justice to what I knew intimately, to the material for which I could provide insight based not only on my connection, but by my ability to simultaneously disengage and theorize about it. Unfortunately, the field of anthropology was not the place for me to do this if I wanted to communicate to a large audience, and so, with the intellectual equipment provided by anthropology, I turned towards autobiographical fiction through which I believed I could reach both anthropologists and a general public. My reasoning was that whereas the public might not be inclined to read a work of interest to anthropologists, anthropologists, by their very nature, would be inclined to read a work whose themes they deemed relevant to their endeavor.

The Stolen Camera as a Summarizing Symbol
"Stolen Camera" is full of symbolic and thematic meanings although, as with life, these meanings happen to be largely coincidental or synchronistic. Certain details do not originally intend to signify or associate themselves with certain themes, yet they cannot help but do so; I've taken advantage of this fact, and in my fictionalizing, I've manipulated more at the structural than at the elemental level.

The title, "Image from a Stolen Camera," refers to the first of what will, as the story unfolds, become a series of complex intertwined literal and figurative displacements. The camera-the Japanese-made technological eye associated the GI, representing the U.S. military displacement of Japan and occupation of Korea-is stolen by the children whom the GI intended to be the subject of his gaze. These children are the marginalized urchins of the kijich'on, itself a liminal space between the U.S. military installation and the Korean town; some of the children-the main characters of the story-are further displaced from categories of race and nationality because they are of mixed blood; all are ironically more savvy to the ways of the world than is the naive GI.

As a summarizing symbol for the succession of colonialisms, as a tool used for "capturing" images by "shooting" them through a lens, and as a commodified object that has different value for each of the hands it passes through, the camera serves as the fulcrum for the many layers of ironic meaning in the narrative. The theft of the camera is on one level empowering for the boys, but ultimately plays out in tragic and ironic realizations as the narrator learns that he was multiply conned himself. Tracing the ultimate causality of the camera theft illuminates the intricate network of relations among the actors in the narrative, a set of relations that plays out like a diagram of the food chain-fish eaten by increasingly larger and meaner fish. The meanest or most desperate fish in this microcosm might be the mother of one of the young boys who-it is implied-might have been the one who ordered the camera and unwittingly set everything in motion. But in each case, charting a character's relation to the camera and its theft illuminates his or her place in the localized workings of capital.

Through a series of displaced ownerships, the image from the camera ultimately comes full circle to its very subjects, and yet the ownership of that subjectivity is forever lost, displaced both spatially and temporally. What remains are the unreliable resonances of memory and nostalgia linked to more immediate concerns like the death of Jani and yet forever relegated to the past because there are no recent memories of the Jani who was displaced from the narrator's world. What we see is that the meanings of the initially-imagined narrative, the world of the children, is over-written by the newly-discovered meanings in the world of the adult, and yet those early meanings linger like the former layers of a palimpsest.

The camera itself also resonates directly with a range of other images and incidents in the narrative, all of which point up the legacy of the Japanese Annexation and emphasize the theme of colonial succession. For example, the train that dripped the oil that resulted in Kisu's burn-though it is mentioned only in passing- was a steam engine left by the Japanese and now operated by Koreans working for the U.S. Army. "Tatagumi," the neighborhood bordering ASCOM bears a Japanese name (which has since been changed).

In fact, the spoken language in the narrative is sprinkled with a pidgin that relies heavily on words of Japanese origin. We hear only taksan and ainoko in the context of the narrative, but these words are indexical of entire vocabularies that resonate at two levels. Ainoko (love child), for example, was a term commonly used and understood by Koreans of my mother's generation-those who had grown up speaking Japanese during the Annexation. My mother's Korean, and the Korean I grew up with, was heavily laden with Japanese words used in everyday life: waribashi for wooden chopsticks, dakuwan for pickled yellow turnips, and nodaji for always are just a few examples. Those terms have since been purged from the Korean language, and one would be hard pressed to find a young adult these days who knows the meaning of waribashi. The word taksan (a lot, many) is an example of Japanese that became GI pidgin, although it was not used commonly by Koreans communicating with each other. In this category, one would find words like: skoshi, mira-mira, debuchan, slicky boy, papa san, mama san, number 1, number 10, honcho, and gook. These terms are of mixed origin-mira-mira, for example, is Spanish-but they are still common in the pidgin of the Korean kijich'on, which remains a liminal language with an oddly displaced lexicon. Most GIs who have served abroad are familiar with this pidgin; these days it is commonly known as "Nam-Speak," and it serves as a concrete reminder of colonial succession not only in Korea, but all over the world.

I've glossed some of specific details above, but in more general terms, what exactly did I want to communicate through the narrative rhetoric and the narrative consciousness of "Stolen Camera" ? I wanted to problematize certain complex issues and to illustrate certain social facts in a way that would create emotional resonance in the reader. But I also wanted to convey these details in a way that was not overtly rhetorical, that is to say that I did not want the story to read like some socialist realist tract since the transparency of underlying rhetoric tends to undermine itself. Ideally, good fiction conveys meanings in a complex and overdetermined form that mimics reality, and I wanted to present such a narrative, one that would become richer, and not flatter, once it was examined critically. At the same time, I did not want to be bound by the limiting truth claims of ethnographic writing; I wanted to perform and emphasize the role and the significance of discursive imagination.

Edward Said, in his "Reflections on Exile," cautions the displaced person; he says that "There is the sheer fact of isolation and displacement, which produces the kind of narcissistic masochism that resists all efforts at amelioration, acculturation and community. At this extreme the exile can make a fetish of exile, a practice that distances him or her from all connections and commitments. To live as if everything around you were temporary and perhaps trivial is to fall prey to petulant cynicism as well as to querulous lovelessness" (364). But in attempting to suggest a source of amelioration and sense of community Said resorts to the language of music, poetry, and mysticism. These are all discourses of emotion and imagination, and for the displaced-whether they be exiles, refugees, or immigrants-it is precisely there that the search for meaning resonates; and it is because the "science" of anthropology is not yet able to adequately accommodate the role of emotion and imagination in ethnographic writing that I had to express my personal, political, and academic concerns through the "art" of narrative.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor & Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Bowen, Elenore Smith [pseud. of Laura Bohannan]. 1954. Return to Laughter. New York: Harper and Row.

Clifford, James. 1986. "Introduction: Partial Truths." Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fenkl, Heinz Insu. 1995. "Image from a Stolen Camera." Asian Quilt. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College.

Fenkl, Heinz Insu. 1996. Memories of My Ghost Brother. New York: Dutton.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Mead, Margaret. 1935. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: William Morrow.

Said, Edward. 1989. "Reflections on Exile." Ferguson, et. al. Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Cambridge, Massa-chusetts: MIT Press. 357-366.


1 I call it an "autobiographical novel" because, at this point, it is still unclear how my publisher will market it. The current flexibility of definition would allow my work to be categorized as autobiography, memoir, or fiction. "Stolen Camera" was originally written to stand alone as a short story, so although it seems to be a truncated chapter, its current form is actually complete and not displaced from a longer narrative.

2 Note that although most of the story is true, I refer to the narrator in the third person as "he" because I have fictionalized parts of the narrative and because the narrator is a persona whose consciousness in the narrative I clearly distinguish from my current "real" consciousness.

3 Ironically, the ethnographer's narrative strategy usually participates in the commodification of social science discourse by the Academy, which is inherently compromised by its relation to Capital and government. A clear consciousness of the compromised nature of the ethnographic narrative is disonant for the ethnographer, who must protect his or her relation to her academic or scientific ideals.

4 One might also note the use of provocative titles as reminiscent of book advertising.

5 I wrote it with the intention of submitting it to a special Pacific Rim issue of the Chicago Review while finishing my novel, but fortunately (and I say this in retrospect, having seen that issue), it was rejected by the editor, who couldn't decide whether I was a Korean writer or an American west coast writer.

6 Korean for a "camp town," a community that establishes itself outside a military installation and relies on such marginalized endeavors as black marketing and prostitution as its economic base.

1996 Heinz Insu Fenkl