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Review: Picturing Indonesian modernity

Review: Picturing Indonesian modernity
Published: Nov 06, 2011

Karen Strassler shows how modern photographic practices played a role in the making of national subjects in postcolonial Java

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn

Having read Karen Strassler’s previous publications on photographic history and the making of national memory in post-colonial (and post-reformasi) Indonesia, I started reading Refracted Visions with much excitement. I first became aware of Strassler’s work a few years ago because of my own interest in the visual history of Chinese Indonesians. Although not her primary research interest, in one of her journal articles Strassler examined how ethnic Chinese photographers acted as ‘cosmopolitan cultural brokers’ who translated global and colonial imageries into national idioms. Impressed by Strassler’s detailed ethnographic research, empathic storytelling and uncanny ability to link individual anecdotes to larger theories related to nation-making and modernist aspirations, I expected to see expansions of her earlier studies in Refracted Visions. What I read was not only an in-depth study of ethnic Chinese in Indonesian photographic history, but a beautifully written historical study of visuality, representation and the cultural significance of popular photography in the context of colonial and post-colonial Java.

Photography, modernity and nationalism

Refracted Visions grew out of Strassler’s 2003 doctoral thesis from the University of Michigan. The majority of data for this book was gathered during fieldwork conducted mainly in Yogyakarta between 1998 and 2000, just as Indonesia stirred with cries for reform following the fall of New Order. In the book’s preface, Strassler opens with a reference to the musings of Minke, the young Javanese protagonist of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel This Earth of Mankind, as he ponders the dawn of the modern era in the Indies where thousands of copies of photographs could be reproduced each day. To Minke, photography represents a transcending of physical and social barriers. As such, photographic technology is an emblem for the marvels of modernity itself.

This experience of modernity is made significant in Toer’s story as Minke eventually comes to realise photography’s potential as a tool to rouse feelings of Indonesian nationalism. According to Strassler, key to Minke’s recognition is an understanding ‘that photographic images operate in different registers, circulating in the public sphere as political symbols while also mediating an intimate realm of personal affiliations, memories, and sentiments’. In other words, photography’s openness to appropriation by individuals became the reason for its widespread (and sometimes unexpected) popularity, not just in Java but in Indonesia generally. So begins Strassler’s exploration of photography’s formative roles in the first half century of Indonesia’s life as a nation.

Visual memory and aspiration

The book is divided into six main chapters (not including the introduction and the epilogue), with each chapter defined by themes intended to represent photography’s many uses in various layers of Javanese society. In the introduction, Strassler lays out most of the book’s theoretical considerations. She also provides an intimate introduction to a recurring character in the book: Ibu Soekilah, a poor elderly woman from Yogyakarta whose lifelong relationship with photographs forms the basis of many of Strassler’s case studies. Strassler writes of the many afternoons she spent sitting with Ibu Soekilah as the old woman flicked through her photo albums while telling bittersweet stories of life, loves and memories.

For many, Ibu Soekilah’s stories and photographs may appear perfectly ordinary, but to Strassler these visual memories are valuable evidence of photography’s deep penetration into the very fabric of everyday life. Ibu Soekilah’s family photographs, identification photographs and posed studio portraits represent significant periods in Indonesia’s history. For instance, Ibu Soekilah’s vivid memory of the first time she was ever photographed (at a photo studio owned by an ethnic Chinese photographer) relates back to the day in 1940 when the modern, Western-educated Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX of Yogyakarta was crowned. Likewise, faded studio photographs of Ibu Soekilah’s family members posing in front of painted backdrops of tropical ‘Indonesian’ landscapes or modern buildings reveal much about how these photographic subjects wished to be ‘pictured’ at the time.

The very fact that every Indonesian citizen had to have an identity photo meant that everyone had multiple copies that could be exchanged as visual currency

The book’s introduction provides readers with a glimpse of Strassler’s capacity to see beyond the mundane and use people’s actual experiences to bring to life complex theories about how memories and belonging are visually constructed. This skill is the strength of the book, and it is evident in every chapter. In Chapter One, Strassler talks about the roles played by colonial and post-colonial amateur photographers in creating some of the earliest collective visions of what ‘Indonesian’ landscapes and peoples looked like. Strassler ponders the irony of ethnic Chinese amateur photographers who contributed so much to the creation of the ‘traditional’ (and indigenised) images of Indonesian-ness that in the end had the additional effect of excluding the Chinese as non-indigenous ‘others’.

In Chapter Two, Strassler continues with her discussion of photography as a means to traverse the physical space by looking at how middle- and lower-class Javanese utilised posed studio photography as a way to literally ‘place themselves’ within the imaginary landscape to which they aspired. These desired landscapes in themselves convey much about Indonesians’ aspirations for modernity during the Old and New Orders. Studio photographs from the 1960s and 70s of adults and children posing in front of modern icons of affluence such as television sets, cameras, bicycles and Vespas reflect the desire of ordinary Javanese to participate in the global post-war quest for economic progress and wealth. Viewed from Strassler’s analytical angle, the photographs appear as touching attempts by people to show both themselves and others that, as Indonesians, they too can realise their dreams of modernity, albeit at an imaginary level.

Identification, documentation, witnessing

In the following three chapters Strassler discusses the New Order’s use of identity photographs as a tool for state surveillance and control of its citizens. She also gives examples of how these identity photos became popularly appropriated for widespread use as funeral photos, wall hangings and even as love tokens gifted by lovers to each other. The very fact that every Indonesian citizen had to have an identity photo meant that everyone had multiple copies that could be exchanged as visual currency. It is these kinds of unexpected appropriations of photography that Strassler is most interested in.

In her analysis of family documentation photographs, Strassler shows how in recent decades wedding photos became platforms for families to showcase their affluence and commitment to Javanese familial ‘traditions’. This was also in accordance with the New Order’s cultural ideology that encouraged displays of supposed cultural authenticity. Wedding photos are not just intended as family documentation but also as a show of status and a medium where ‘traditions’ are re-enacted. Similarly, Strassler’s discussion of the journalistic photographs taken during the 1998 student demonstrations is intended to highlight the uses of these photos beyond their purpose of documentation. Strassler argues that photographs of students marching hand-in-hand against the tyranny of Suharto and his armed forces became a form of resistance and ‘witnessing’ on behalf of the students. Furthermore, these photographs became the symbols of the youthful and passionate spirit of the reformasi movement, permanently stored in the national imagination.

The most colourful chapter in the book is the last one, devoted to the case study of Noorman, an ageing ex-military man whose personal messianic convictions led him to turn his own modest home into a photographic shrine dedicated to Sukarno, Javanese wayang heroes, himself and Ratu Adil, the mythical Javanese saviour who will one day liberate Indonesia from evil and injustice. While seemingly bizarre, Noorman’s obsession has strong historical context. His sense of grave injustice over Sukarno’s downfall in the hands of Suharto motivated him to pursue the truth of Supersemar (the now-missing letter Sukarno supposedly wrote to anoint Suharto as his successor). Noorman is convinced that he is the man for the job because of the mysterious pentagon-shaped orange lens flare that appeared on several photographs taken of him. To Noorman and his followers, these lens flares and his prophetic dreams, are evidence of his divine duty as Sukarno’s right-hand man. In the absence of a public forum where he could speak his ‘truth’, Noorman turned to photographs and created a display space for himself and his alternative history of Indonesia on the walls of his home.

Forging identities

At the beginning of Refracted Visions, Strassler notes that her main objective in writing the book is to ‘understand the ways that photography has shaped the envisioning of “Indonesia” and “Indonesians” in postcolonial Java’. Strassler has achieved this and more. Through her detailed analysis of photographs taken, posed, collected and displayed by ordinary individuals like Ibu Soekilah and Noorman, Strassler shows how photographs – a foreign and modern invention – have profoundly shaped how people imagine ‘the troubled collectivity known as “Indonesia” and their own place within it’.

Contrasting tradition and modernity, reality and dreams, and physical and imagined spaces, post-colonial Javanese subjects appropriate popular photography to create their own versions of self and of Indonesia. Refracted Visions is an apt title in this case because the book showcases how photographs allow individuals to mould shared visions of Indonesian national modernity into their personal narratives and memories. As such, although the book claims only to be a study of photography in Java, it goes further than that to show how photographs contribute to the construction of Indonesian national consciousness more generally.

Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java, Durham (NC), Duke University Press, 2010.

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn ( is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at La Trobe University. She currently lectures in Visual Anthropology and Cinema at Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 106: Oct-Dec 2011

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