Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2011
Karen Strassler Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java Objects/Histories: Critical Perspectives on Art, Material Culture, and Representation. Ed. Nicholas Thomas.. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 387 pp.; 32 color ills.; 95 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780822346111)

Refracted Visions is a substantial and well-researched study of contemporary popular photography in Indonesia, a result of anthropologist Karen Strassler’s extensive fieldwork in Java since the mid-1990s, which covers a period when analog photography was still dominant. While the book provides adequate historical background into the consolidation of popular photography since the colonial era, its focus is on six genres, each given a separate chapter treatment: amateur photography (chapter 1), studio portraiture (chapter 2), identity photographs (chapter 3), family ritual photography (chapter 4), student photographs of demonstrations (chapter 5), and photographs of charismatic political leaders (chapter 6). Strassler draws from the methodological insights of Roland Barthes, John Tagg, and other photography theorists, engages extensively with critical area studies approaches to Indonesia (Benedict Anderson), and situates her findings within a range of distinguished anthropological studies of Indonesia and Java by scholars such as Clifford Geertz, James Siegel, and John Pemberton.

The value of Refracted Visions is reinforced by the specificity of its geographical location, Indonesia, which is a very large country by population and extremely diverse linguistically and ethnically. Indonesia’s nationhood, in the modern sense of the term, is a fairly recent development. For example, its national language, “Indonesian,” was the mother tongue of only a small minority of its population at its independence in 1945; but it emerged from “bazaar Malay,” the lingua franca during the Dutch colonial era, and positioned the Chinese trading community at a relative advantage. Indonesia thus serves as an important example of how cultural contestation in many postcolonial nation-states in Asia and Africa is inextricably linked to their formative aporias. Moreover, Indonesian politics since its independence from Dutch rule have been characterized by two long periods of domination by a single ruler: by the leader of independence, Sukarno, from 1945 to 1965, and particularly during the three-decade rule by the US-backed authoritarian, Suharto, ending in 1998. Periods of marked violence attended the end of each era: the infamous massacre of 1965–66 that eliminated one of the largest communist parties in the world, and widespread social unrest following the end of Suharto’s rule. This longevity of authoritarian rule especially during Suharto’s New Order has meant that state-led articulation of national identity exerted a powerful effect on popular photographic practices, as is evident in Strassler’s account.

The introduction to Refracted Visions provides a useful historical overview of Indonesian photography and political developments since the colonial era, including events that led to the overthrow of the Suharto regime in the late 1990s. It outlines how the powerful yet fraught minority ethnic Chinese community has played a key role in the development of photography in Indonesia. The introduction also discusses the relation between Javanese and Indonesian identity and considers photography as a force of global modernity and its particular articulation in Indonesia; these issues are further articulated and specified in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 1 provides a good history of amateur photographic activity since the Dutch colonial era, and traces debates during the early independence era that stressed mastering the photographic medium in order for Indonesia to modernize. During her fieldwork in the 1990s, Strassler accompanied amateur photographers, many of them ethnic Chinese who formed photographic clubs and ventured into the countryside seeking authentic (asli) views of Indonesia, a documentary focus supported by the state and by multinational corporations. Strassler shows how this seemingly innocuous activity was undergirded by the cultural politics of Suharto’s New Order that banned the public expression of Chinese culture, and sought to manage Indonesia’s cultural and ethnic diversity through the depoliticized celebration of tradition. The social location of these photographers who produced Indonesia’s authenticity via photography, ironically, also worked to “exclude Chinese Indonesians from authentic belonging to the nation” (71), since their culture could not be accommodated within its realm.

Chapter 2 discusses studio photography and includes a valuable treatment of the change in props and backdrop landscapes since the colonial era. By the 1950s, a “distinctively ‘Indonesian’ backdrop style” (87) was established, as a result of collaboration between Chinese photographers and Javanese popular painters, which depicted the Indonesian rural landscape, monuments, furnished interiors, and urban themes. However, by the late 1990s, the spread of inexpensive color photography and automatic processing led to transformations in studio practices, resulting in simpler backdrops in commercial portraiture. In general, studio portraiture and staged amateur portraiture are better understood here as providing a vehicle for “the projection of possible selves” (79), rather than for the Western assumption of revealing the interiority of a subject, a modality that Indonesia shares with other postcolonial sites.

The polymorphous role that the identification photograph has assumed in Java is discussed in chapter 3. The identity photo has, of course, been deployed as a technique of surveillance and governmentality, and among its targets during the colonial era were the ethnic Chinese, who were deemed suspect. The Sukarno era introduced a Family Card as a form of registration of identity, but this did not include a photograph. In the wake of the 1965 violence, a mandatory identity card was introduced that not only functioned as a marker of an abstract Indonesian citizenship, but also began to delineate legitimate residence in a specific and local community. The state’s fixation on photographic identity also resulted in the expansion of the photographic trade, resulting in studio photographers retouching identity photographs and rendering them more idealized, to serve as memorial images. The Chinese community deployed these identity photos in family rituals, and their use as a memorial image eventually spread to the Javanese. This polysemy problematizes existing Western theorizations of surveillance photography primarily as a technology of control, by recognizing its relay toward the cultivation of personal and familial affect that cannot be captured by governmentality.

The documentation of modern “rituals” is the subject of chapter 4. Drawing from previous anthropological accounts of the self in Javanese society, Strassler argues that modern Javanese weddings and even birthdays and funerals are elaborate ceremonial performances in which displays of emotion and affect continue to be carefully managed. She further suggests that the camera is not simply a witness to the modern ceremony, but works to enframe the performance itself, which is now unthinkable without this technological prosthetic. Moreover, the family photographic album has enabled a new relationship to familial memory, and “corresponds to a growing value placed on the creation of a paper trail that recapitulates one’s personal trajectory” (206).

The vibrant student-led political demonstrations that attended the demise of the Suharto regime in 1998 are discussed in chapter 5. After a very long period of authoritarianism, students were able to openly mobilize themselves as witnesses to history and sought to deploy photography to document injustices, both for their personal records and as a way to highlight those injustices more publicly. In 1999, photographic exhibitions of journalistic and amateur documentations of Indonesian events attracted large audiences in the city of Yogyakarta, the site of Strassler’s fieldwork. Here she strikes a cautionary note, by suggesting that although the students value this photographic work as untainted by power, these photographs are not automatically free of ideology. By contextualizing these photographs and exhibitions with available archives from earlier periods in Indonesian history, it is evident that photographic documentation of political events has failed to provide a multifaceted view of Indonesia’s complex history. For example, Indonesian regimes in earlier periods deployed photographs of violence as propaganda against the communists after 1965. As photographs sympathetically documenting the communists were largely destroyed at that juncture by fearful supporters of their cause, the events of 1965, if understood from visual evidence alone, yield a one-sided historical account of those bloody, consequential years.

Chapter 6 discusses the activities of an “outsider” who believes that the Suharto regime betrayed the historical path charted by Sukarno. Named after a Dutch general but associative of the Javanese (and Arabic) term noor (light), Mr. Noorman obsessively deploys Javanese mythology, newspaper clippings that offer conflicting accounts of the transfer of power documents from Sukarno to Suharto, and photographs of himself in which his head is surrounded by a halo-like lens flare to situate revelatory claims regarding the veracity of his cause. He thus ties the indexical and evidential value of the photograph to his larger goal of “depict[ing] Suharto as a false copy of Sukarno, a false leader whose entire regime was founded on a false copy of an authentic document” (256). For Strassler, Noorman’s case offers a counterhistory of Javanese modernity in which “evidence” and “revelatory signs” are not opposite values, unlike accounts of modernity as characterized by disenchantment alone.

This rich and provocative study offers a thorough understanding of the changing role of photography in Javanese society at the popular level, and suggests a number of avenues for further research and clarification, especially with respect to comparative studies of photography in other regions, which archival and scholarly work on South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are beginning to recover. While Strassler does employ numerous comparative insights, a deeper engagement with postcolonial theory and with studies from other regions might better clarify practices specific to Java from those shared with other postcolonial societies. For example, the orientation of modern ceremonies toward the camera eye is probably a much broader cultural phenomenon than the one Refracted Visions documents. Conversely, Strassler’s analysis moves interchangeably between addressing “Java” and “Indonesia,” but it is unclear whether practices specific to Java are necessarily fully shared by other regions in Indonesia, such as the Aru Islands, Bali, Kalimantan, or Sulawesi. And while Strassler is exemplary in her attention to the Chinese minority, one wonders whether the Javanese do not also consist of multiple publics whose relationship to ceremonial photography may be differentiated by their class or their varied adherence to more textual forms of Islam, for example. Finally, despite the undeniable power of the Indonesian nation-state in molding everyday life during the New Order, are many “national” practices or frameworks identified by Strassler in fact independent of the nation-state and part of larger technological shifts in photography? For example, I am thinking here of the introduction of inexpensive cameras and automatic color processors beginning in the 1980s, which is probably a global transformation largely independent of state policies in most postcolonial societies.

The demarcation of the realm of the “popular” with respect to “high art” in many postcolonial sites differs from, and cannot be fully explained by, Eurocentric conceptions of kitsch or ideologies of the culture industry, rendering Strassler’s study valuable to the discipline of art history. An art historian would, however, be interested in the specific relation between popular and artistic photography, which is understandably of less interest to Strassler. It is certainly a measure of the continued narrowness of art history that such studies of global visual practices are largely produced outside the discipline.

Iftikhar Dadi
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, Cornell University