Vernacular Javanese

I just recently finished reading Refracted Visions by Karen Strassler.

It’s remarkable book by an anthropologist trained at the University of Michigan; she completed her fieldwork in Yogyakarta.  Her primary interest is photography, and she offers a study of Javanese vernacular photography during the New Order.

Strassler offers a case by case study of the New Order by looking at some of the different ideologies of populist photography during these years.

The first of her studies she calls the amateurs, the photo clubs that all cities have.  The amateurs compete in regional competitions taking picturesque photographs of the real Indonesia, full of mystical beauty and a boundless history.

Many of these contests are funded by the national tourism commission as a marketing strategy, to help insure the tourist trade of the nation.

The second study is about studio portraiture.

Strassler argues that in post colonial Indonesia – as across Europe and America – photography was the defining tool and metaphor for modernity.  In Indonesia, the caused a strange conflict; photography was both an alien force brought by the western occupier of their nation, then later practiced mostly by the ethnic Chinese (an ongoing culture tension in Java), and yet was also consumed wildly by the population and seen as a necessary tool for nationhood.

With wonderfully executed backdrops, brought into Yogya from a neighboring village of painters and craftsmen, the studio photographers of the modern age offered a taste of dreams, and articulated many of the predominant ideologies of the nation.

These studios created an opportunity to offer the self as you’d like it to be.

The third section is about identity photographs – pasfotos – a tool by the government to count and control the population.

The next study looks at family, ceremonial photography.  Like in the west, photographs are major contributor to ceremonies of all kinds (birthdays, Easter egg hunts, etc..), and rights of passage.  Strassler argues the act of photographing is the meaning, is the memory.  The printed photograph itself fills a variety of functions, some related to this memory and time, some more independent because of the materials and the culture(s).

From here, she continues by looking at student photography during the Reformasi, and the functions photographs fulfill in creating social and political histories.  She compares the pictures of the recent student uprising against Seoharto to Solo 1965.

The final section is about the mystic of Sukarno.

It is a profile of one man who sees himself as a political and historical mystic, name Noorman.  Using photographs, photocopies, and collage, Noorman attempts to record the real history of Sukarno, and his legacy in Indonesia.

Strassler began her study by looking at Kassian Cephas, and the documentation of turn of the century photography in the Dutch East Indies.  All said and done, I appreciate this book quite a bit, both as a photographer and  the study of the medium, as well as as an Indonesian-ist.


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