Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 23, 2015
Susie Protschky, ed. Photography, Modernity and the Governed in Late-colonial Indonesia Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014. 245 pp.; 11 color ills.; 29 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9789089646620)

The ten essays in this edited collection focus on the role of photography in the implementation of colonial policy in early twentieth-century Indonesia and the responses of the local Indies people whose lives were affected and shaped by this policy. Susie Protschky, the book’s editor, explains that in the very early years of the twentieth century, local resistance to Dutch rule had become so resounding that the government was forced to moderate its policies. The new suite of liberal developmentalist reforms introduced in 1904 was known collectively as the “Ethical Policy.” Photography is the frame through which this policy is studied because as Protschky explains, “the Ethical Policy commenced when photography began to circulate in the media and among amateur practitioners in the Netherlands Indies at an historically unprecedented range and volume following advancements to the camera, the image development process, and printing and reproduction technologies” (12). However, Protschky is careful to emphasize the strengths and limits of photographs as historical sources, citing Roland Barthes’s observation that photographs contain traces of things past, but they cannot relay history to viewers in the present “repletely and unmediated” (19).

The book’s introduction presents a historical overview of the Ethical Policy itself, its aims, the predominantly liberal ideological beliefs that drove it, and the unique rhetoric in which it was couched compared to other contemporaneous colonial administrations. Readers learn of the importance of Elsbeth Locher-Scholten’s work to the analyses contained in the collection and in particular her idea that no single voice articulated the full details, scope, and purpose of the Ethical Policy program (16). What she offers, Protschky explains, is a line of inquiry that has largely been neglected since being raised three decades ago in her foundational study Ethiek in Fragmenten (Utrecht, Netherlands: HES Publishers, 1981), but which reemerges in this new context as a series of “multiple reflections on the present and future in Indies photographs from the early twentieth century” (18). Many of these reflections, when applied to the Indies people, “envision neither a path to nationalist uprising nor a course in colonial progress, but explore other ways of conceiving what it was to be ‘modern’, ‘civilized’ and engaged in civic participation” (18).

The book consequently approaches the Ethical Policy via a surprising number of topics, beginning with Jean Gelman Taylor’s essay on the films of J. C. Lamster, a Dutch agent employed by the Netherlands Colonial Institute to make propaganda films aimed at encouraging Dutch people to settle in the Indies. These films, Taylor notes, only ever presented the benevolent, reassuring face of Dutch colonialism to viewers, thereby delivering the impression of things progressing and of the Dutch presence as a modernizing force, whereas novelists often presented a more negative picture. Intriguingly, Taylor also notices that the films upheld the myth of the blond Dutch child when in fact many children in the settler community were the result of mixed-race unions (including Lamster’s own children). The films also unashamedly show the hauteur of the Dutch women and men and the lack of servility toward Europeans on the part of the Indonesians. Arguably introducing a new line of enquiry, however, is his observation that the films depict many native workers engaged in supporting the Ethical Policy because they want to appear modern and civilized.

The essay by Protschky that follows focuses on the much-neglected genre of the family photograph album, and specifically one produced by a colonial agent named Gerard Louwrens Tichelman. According to Protschky, individual collections like Tichelman’s open up what Elizabeth Edwards has called the “‘the human centre’ of colonial photograph collections” (91), even as they reveal much about how the colonial authorities in the Indies conceived of the various ethnic groups residing in major towns, and how they sought to rationalize the governance of communities with different customs and modes of social organization. Using the evocative phrase “egodocuments” (91), she refers to the way Tichelman’s family album bespeaks a new anthropological practice for official agents that involves bringing professional life together with private life while simultaneously decentring the ethnographic photograph as a stable category of colonial knowledge production.

Further expanding the range of subject matter, Paul Bijl’s essay is a devastating exposé of the colonial atrocities that occurred during the Aceh War of 1904 and their reception by the Dutch public. Centering on eight photographs that the colonial army made depicting the mass deaths that resulted from its assaults on a number of fortified villages on the island of Sumatra, it focuses the reader’s attention on the children that appear in the photographs. As witnesses and survivors to the atrocities, they and their ambiguous reception, Bijl argues, raise important questions about the meanings attributed to war photographs by the Dutch people, the tensions in European ideas about the nature of the native child and her or his relation to the colonial state, the potentially aesthetic effects of photography, and the hypocrisies undergirding the civilizing mission.

Pamela Pattynama investigates the photographic albums that were repatriated to the Netherlands after World War II and which show evidence of mixed-race marriages. She notes that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such marriages were common, but once miscegenation became associated with degeneration, they and their resulting offspring were heavily stigmatized. Pattynama notes the albums’ equal investment in landscape images that conform to the Mooi Indie type, so named because they represented the colony in a romanticized way. Clearly these albums reveal much about how colonial settlers wished to represent and position themselves in an era when colonialism had not yet been supplanted by indigenous nationalism, but they also raise questions about how the past is remembered and how relevant the culture of the Indies colonial past is to present-day Indonesians compared to Dutch nationals.

Joost Coté focuses on a representative female figure of modernized Java. Raden Ajeng Kartina, known simply as Kartini, was an advocate for Javanese women at the time the Ethical Policy was implemented. Reflecting a new sense of nationalist consciousness, she readily exploited the educative opportunities made available to female elites like herself to help achieve widespread reforms through appeals to a receptive European audience. Although she became a well-known radical figure in the West, this was primarily the result of her writings. Coté’s innovation is to trace her gradual evolution toward a confident presentation of her modern Javaneseness in that other powerful medium of modernity: photography.

The seminal role played by the ethnic Chinese in using photography to offer Indies subjects an alternative route to modernity to the one provided by the West is the subject of Karen Strassler’s essay. The fact that ethnic Chinese in the Indies embraced photography with more alacrity than the indigenous inhabitants, and younger Chinese increasingly turned to Western professions and more modern, capitalistic business industries, meant they were effectively cultural mediators. Strassler’s argument raises important questions about the role of photography in performative identities that centered on clothes, styles, and fashion, but it also gestures toward the research that needs to be done on photography’s role in the models of identity that contributed to Indonesia’s political revolution.

Henk Schulte Nordholt focuses on the way Indies people eventually broke the control of the colonial state through their embrace of cultural citizenship. Denied access to power through political means, the indigenous middle class took to education and consumption as an alternative conduit to modernity. According to Nordholt, theirs was “an education of desire” inspired by posters and advertisements wielding images of new lifestyles. An especially intriguing feature of his argument is the claim that the new woman phenomenon that emerged in the West took a different “turn” in the Indies. Instead of bobbed hair, painted lips, an elongated body, and a rejection of motherhood, emphasis was placed on women as harbingers of cleanliness and hygiene, a topic that is bound to stimulate more investigation in the light of similar claims for other colonized nations, including India.

Finally, Rudolf Mrázek offers a thoughtful meditation on the photographs produced by internees of Boven Digoel, the camp where the perpetrators of the failed Communist uprising of 1926 were imprisoned. An intriguing observation made by Mrázek is that there is not a single photograph of a guard; rather, the Papuans inhabiting and the primeval forest encircling the camp were the favored subjects. The note of poignancy that Mrázek brings to his reading of these photographs results from the fact that so few have survived, as most were destroyed by a generation of Indonesians who in later years either regarded them with embarrassment or for whom they had no meaning. This is a particularly fine example of the way in which visual images, and photographs in particular, offer scholars a productive set of materials for “doing” history.

Photography, Modernity and the Governed in Late-colonial Indonesia is an important book that should not be neglected by any serious scholar of modern Indonesian culture. It offers an especially rich body of knowledge to scholars working in the fields of Indonesian and Dutch colonial history, as well as the history of colonial photography and film. It also points to the vital importance of archives like the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam for the excavation of long-forgotten elements of the colonial past that remain vital to an understanding of the present.

Elizabeth Anne Maxwell
Associate Professor, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

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