- A Camera in the Garden of Eden: The Self-Forging of a Banana Republic by Kevin Coleman
In A Camera in the Garden of Eden, Kevin Coleman explores the history and events shaping the small Honduran city of El Progreso from its founding as a commercial hub for timber and cattle operations to its emergence as a key base of operations for the United Fruit Company, as banana cultivation reshaped the economic, social, and political landscape of Honduras in the twentieth century. Coleman approaches this story from two directions, the first of which is a creative and well-researched narrative history that provides a significant contribution to understanding twentieth-century Honduras. The second approach is more ambitious, using photographic analysis and social theory to develop a broader interpretation of the ways in which neocolonial enterprises and individual actors promote, contest, and generate different modes of identity and power at local scales.
The foundation for both of these approaches is a range of official and private photo archives, including the United Fruit Company collections at Harvard, periodicals from Honduras, and private collections in El Progreso. By far the most important of these is the fortuitously discovered trove of prints and negatives produced by Rafael Platero Paz, a studio photographer who recorded the life of the city and its inhabitants for more than six decades. This collection of staged portraits, local events, and creative expressions opens windows into daily life and focuses Coleman’s analysis. Much recent work in visual cultural studies emphasizes the active nature of photography as a mediated space where the subject, photographers, and viewers consciously engage in the process of representation and projected meaning. Thus, the Platero Paz archive is an invaluable resource for unwinding the lives of individuals as agents in their own history, a history crafted in juxtaposition with larger structural processes, including corporate control and capitalist production using the same medium. In particular, Coleman proposes the concept of “self-forging” by individual actors, fostering exploration of multiple perspectives through the photographic record, ultimately using critical and photographic theory to create a “local history of subaltern photography.”
Given this challenging and ambitious scope, it is not surprising that the book is somewhat uneven and difficult to address as a whole. Over nine chapters, Coleman wanders through the labyrinths of corporate and local history, structural considerations of neoliberalism, Honduras as the prototypical banana republic, labor and power, modernity, national identity, and the aspirations of immigrants, peasants, and politicians; it is a complex, idiosyncratic journey thick with academic jargon and theoretical expositions.
After laying a critical foundation in the first chapter, the book presents an excellent [End Page 165] survey of the founding and development of El Progreso in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the rise of the banana republic on Honduras’ North Coast. From early commercial roots, the modernizing economic and political impulses on which the town was built led directly into the arrival of United Fruit. A narrative of land conflicts, social positioning, and rapid population growth sets the stage for the wide range of actors and interests that emerges throughout the book, including Platero Paz himself. In keeping with the broader theme of the book, El Progreso is then placed within the tangled history of imperialism, from United Fruit to banana republic imagery in popular culture.
The core of the book, in the fourth and fifth chapters, stretches beyond traditional forms of historical narrative. In chapter four, the reader is presented with the life of Rafael Platero Paz, along with an extended philosophical rumination on the nature of self-portraiture and identity. The chapter uses as a foundation “The Garden of Eden”, a self-portrait taken with an unidentified North American, posing virtually naked. This is not a particularly surprising image, as the photographer was fond of taking self-portraits in numerous settings. But Coleman senses something deeper in this...