Freeze frame

Kevin Coleman
Monday, January 19, 2015 - 9:53am
Carla DeMarco

From an early age, Professor Kevin Coleman was consistently drawn to Central and South America, though for many years he regarded it as a mere sideline pursuit.

Raised in Arizona and influenced by a variety of cultures, he grew up with home-cooked Italian food and fresh Mexican food from the small restaurants in his hometown. After completing an undergraduate degree in philosophy, he did an internship in the U.S. Department of State and then taught introductory philosophy classes at Navajo Community College in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Still looking to fulfill an aspiration to live abroad, by the time he turned twenty-three Coleman was living with campesinos(subsistence farmers) and working as a Peace Corps Volunteer on potable water projects in southern Honduras, where he developed friendships that continue to this day. 

And the rest is history, literally for Coleman, who is currently a professor in Historical Studies at U of T Mississauga, investigating U.S.-Latin American encounters and visual culture.

“I always had an interest in Latin America, and eventually wanted to immerse myself in the distinctive cultures of the region,” says Coleman. He feels his current research marries his passions into one engaging, comprehensive endeavor.

“After I served in the Peace Corps, I did a master’s degree [focusing on Latin American literature], and saw that by studying history I could merge my interests in philosophy, U.S. policy, and Latin America,” says Coleman. “The visual studies component entered in as a theoretically exciting space that had not been well explored within Latin American history per se.”

He is now finishing up his first book, entitled A Camera in the Garden of Eden: The Self-Forging of the Banana Republic, which features over one hundred rare photographs. In the book, he argues that the “banana republic” was an imperial constellation of images and practices that was locally checked and contested by the people of the Honduran town of El Progreso, where the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) had one of its main divisional offices. As banana plantation workers, women, and peasants posed for pictures and, more emblematically, as they staged the General Strike of 1954, they forged new ways of being while also visually asserting their rights as citizens.

Coleman feels that photography offers a unique perspective into history, and into social and political movements. “If you are able to work with photographs as historical documents, but also as objects that communicate in ways that are different from texts, or from other aspects of material culture, then we have access to the subjectivities of people that are otherwise not present in the historical record,” says Coleman. He explains that in many instances photographs are the only documentary evidence left behind by some of the banana workers and that these image objects offer insights into the lives they lived, along with an opportunity to “retrieve histories” that have otherwise been decimated.

Armed with a grant of nearly $107,000 awarded in 2014 by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, his next project expands in attempting to cover the entire domain of the United Fruit Company. Entitled “Visualizing the Americas,” this digital humanities project focuses on the company's operations in Cuba, Jamaica, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia and examines the company's ways of seeing, enacted and materialized in its towns and plantations, while also tracing a genealogy of the countervisualities fashioned by people in the banana-growing regions of Latin America and the Caribbean. In the final phase of this project, the findings will be disseminated through the design and launch of a website that will provide a wealth of rare photographs and scholarly commentary to other researchers, teachers, and an educated general audience.

Coleman says that the impact of his work is about the politics involved behind the pictures, but also the ways that photography helped the banana-company workers expand their sense of self-representation.

“These seemingly mundane images are really about ways of breaking with the world that tells them they are poor, and don’t have a right to speak in public, or to vote, or to govern their work environment,” says Coleman. “When they represent themselves in another way, in a different way, they are essentially trying to break from that world and to create a new world that includes them.”