Earlier this month I participated in a workshop that discussed the concept and practice of colonial photography at Langgeng Art Foundation in Yogyakarta. The workshop was initiated by photography historian Alexander Supartono and held in conjunction with the exhibition of Noorderlicht‘s The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar project at LAF Gallery. During the workshop, researcher Antariksa of Kunci Cultural Studies Center acted as facilitator and artist F.X. Harsono came to inspire us about visual research. LAF’s board member Aisyah Hilal also joined our discussion sessions. In this post, I will share some notes I made during the workshop.
The workshop went on for nine days (1–9 November) and 11 participants were invited to join: Yee I-Lann (Kuala Lumpur), Dow Wasiksiri (Bangkok), Robert Zhao Renhui (Singapore), Agan Harahap (Jakarta), Stephany Yaya Sungkharisma (Jakarta), Abednego Trianto (Semarang), Adytama Pranada (Bandung), Ismal Muntaha (Jatiwangi), Setu Legi (Yogyakarta), Rangga Purbaya (Yogyakarta), and Budi N.D. Dharmawan (me). Wimo Bayang of MES 56 joined in group discussions, but he left the workshop earlier to help prepare the Sugar project exhibition with Akiq A.W., other MES 56 member who curated the Yogyakarta show. (I will write about the exhibition some other time.)
I actually have heard about the workshop since last year, when LAF’s former Executive Director Grace Samboh contacted me to help her setting up the workshop. Back then, the workshop was planned to be more about lectures and discussions, or as Alex put it an “academic workshop.” But now it was more a “creative workshop” during which we were supposed to make something, based on or inspired by colonial photographs that Alex had shared with us a few months earlier.
That collection of almost a thousand photographs made during the colonial period (late 19th century to early 20th century) was the basis of the workshop. Alex borrowed the photographs from the archives of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, KITLV Leiden, and National Gallery of Australia. He shared them with us in categories that he made himself: Colonial portraits; Colonial sugar; Landscaping; Prototyping; Miscellaneous; three folders of photographs each from an album from Surabaya, Jatiroto, and Yogyakarta; and an extra folder titled Stereophotograph. He told us that he “invented” the categorization based on the practices in which photography was used during the colonial era. The categories are not in fixed order since he couldn’t find a reference to base his categorization upon.
Antariksa argued that putting the full captions and even more including small thumbnails of the original photographs could limit our creativity and could also limit the ways viewers might see the work. On the other hand, Yee I-Lann argued that if the viewers were provided with the original photograph though just a thumbnail and the original context of the photograph in the caption, it could create even broader interpretation. “You put two things together [the original photograph and the new work based on that photograph] they’re instantly engaged in a dialogue,” she said.
Another term that we argued about was that we should only use the archival photographs in respectful way. Now what is respectful or disrespectful? How respectful should we be and what kinds of use are considered disrespectful? Can we modify [appropriate] the archival photographs and if so, to what extent? And it was the afternoon before the workshop had even started. And we would get back to those debates and discussions in the coming days along the workshop.
On the first day of the workshop, 1 November, each of the participants presented their previous work, so others can better understand the methods and approaches they usually incorporate in working. It became clearer how different this group of people was. Most were artists using photographs as their medium, some had previously worked using old photographs, while some others used to work in documentary style.
Alex explained, “The reason I invited such varied people to the workshop, including Budi here who has strong documentary background, is to see how these people with different approaches would respond to these colonial photographs and the concept of colonial photography itself.”
Dow Wasiksiri, for example, back in Bangkok is a successful commercial photographer. But he has also been doing street photography for many years (and is preparing a book that I really adore). And he has participated in numerous exhibitions of Southeast Asian contemporary art. Adytama Pranada is a graduate from Bandung Institute of Technology’s Art and Design Faculty. He often incorporates projection of old photographs in his work to allow communication between the past and present. Setu Legi doesn’t really take and exhibit photographs, as he is an installation artist who has shown works at Biennale Jogja 2011 and Art Dubai 2012. You can imagine how different we all are.
The day after, 2 November, we discussed more about the concept and practices of colonial photography. Although Alex had shared the archival photographs to all of us before the workshop began, he gave some more time during the workshop for us to once again take a look at them, only this time as a group. Alex gave more insights about the photographs and the photography practices during the colonial era. “What we are doing right now is what I call post-colonial reading of colonial photographs.”
A common practice of showing photographs at that time was to put them together in albums simply titled “Souvenir.” Photographs were made at the colonies to be sent back to the families (not of the photographers but of the buyers) at the motherland in Europe—a souvenir. It was also common to see an image appeared in different albums produced by different studios, as popular images tend to be pirated. This raised the question of authorship: Who actually owned an image; the buyer, the album maker, the photographer, or the subject? (Read also: Geoffrey Batchen’s essay “Dreams of ordinary life: cartes-de-visite and the burgeouis imagination” in Photography: Theoretical snapshots, ed. J.J. Long, A. Noble, and E. Welch. Routledge, 2009, pp. 80–97.)
Alex also showed us how photography had become an industry during the colonial era in Indonesia, or then known as the Dutch East Indies, where more than 500 studios were known to operate, mostly owned by the Chinese and Europeans. There were four native (professional) photographers operated in Dutch East Indies between 1850–1940, Kassian Cephas in Yogyakarta, A. Mohammad in Batavia (now Jakarta), Sarto in Semarang, and Najoan in Ambon.
However there are no remaining photographs made by these native photographers known to exist, except those made by Kassian Cephas which are kept mainly in the archive of KITLV in Leiden. According to Alex, such loss of archives was quite common. When a photography studio went bankrupt they usually sold their glass plates, and when bought by other photography studios, these glass negatives were usually cleaned for reuse.
During his research on the history of photography in Indonesia, Alex also found a photograph that shows the interior of the Kurkdjian photo studio in Surabaya (owned by Armenian photographer Onnes Kurkdjian) and another that shows the whole staff working for the studio, each with specific assignment to do. This indicates the scale of the work done in the studio photography business at that time. Judging from the size of the studio and the staff, Kurkdjian was probably one of the most successful photography studios in the Dutch East Indies, other than Woodbury & Page.
The next two days, 3–4 November, we presented our ideas and discussed about what we wanted to do during the workshop. Some came with more-or-less fixed ideas, as some others had already clear ideas but would later change as the discussions grew and sparked new ideas, while some others came only with raw ideas and wished to develop them during the workshop. Dow Wasiksiri belongs to the first cluster, that came to Yogyakarta already armed with specific idea of what to do—and what to shoot. He often left the group discussion sessions as he needed to go around Yogyakarta with an assitant to get the shots he needed to make work.
It was interesting for me to see how Dow responded to the colonial photographs as his country has never been officially colonized by any other countries. It was quite unique as other participants’ countries had witnessed (and suffered from) colonization by the Dutch (Indonesia) and by the British (Malaysia and Singapore). For Dow, those colonial photographs mean nothing more than old photographs. However, he still tried to read a bit about colonialism just to get the idea of the historical context of why such photographs were made in the first place. (This would later lead to an interesting personal discussion with me.)
Yee I-Lann was one of those who had an idea but would change as the discussions grew. For I-Lann the land of the colony has female characteristic, as indicated by many native wisdom (like Ibu Pertiwi of Mother Nature). On the other hand, the act of colonizing through all of its manifestation has male characterstic and seems to be a violent act. But she didn’t know much about the Dutch colonization in Indonesia and of the colonial photographs shared by Alex, she was only interested in the visual elements of the photographs. When the group discussed about the Dutch colonization, those new information sparked other things in her mind. “I actually had something in mind but I may change it after the discussions,” she once told me on a lunch break.
I would like to admit that I belong to the third cluster, who had only raw idea and wished to develop it during the workshop. When Alex invited me to join the workshop, I didn’t realize that the participants were expected to make something from the workshop. I only realized it a month before the workshop when Alex sent me another email asking for my proposal (Yep, at first I thought, What proposal?). I began to look again and again at the colonial photographs and read again and again the reading materials that Alex had also shared with us before. It was really interesting process, but to be honest, I just couldn’t find a focus to make work out of those photographs and readings.
In Singapore, I was reminded to the figure of Oei Tiong Ham, a Semarang-born Chinese businessman who lived in the colonial period and became the wealthiest man in the region. He later moved to Singapore and passed away there. He was dubbed as The King of Sugar of Southeast Asia. Now things started to make sense to me, as I began to try connecting the keywords: colonial, sugar, Dutch East Indies, the Chinese, and photography. Some ideas started to pop in my mind, such as photographing the remaining sugar factories and compare the new photographs with the archival photographs, tracing the Chinese businessmen who then run the sugar factories as the remaining factories are now mainly run by government enterprise, and some other ideas.
However, it was to my surprise that when Abednego Trianto from Semarang presented what he had in mind to do during the workshop, his idea was similar to mine—and his turn was before me. Later on, when we spoke, he jokingly told me, “As a Semarang-born Chinese, the figure of Oei Tiong Ham must naturally have been thought of first by other Semarang-born Chinese like me [big grin]!” Yeah, I missed that, Abed [also big grin]!
But anyway I had another problem. The discussions about colonial photography, the history of photography practices in Indonesia (or Dutch East Indies), the work of Kassian Cephas, the sugar industry in the Dutch colonies, the role of the Chinese in the Dutch East Indies, etc. through these colonial photographs had been more interesting for me rather than making something out of them. My energy had been totally shifted to the discussions; I was really exhausted in trying to make work.
When it was my turn to present what I wanted to do during the workshop, I only had questions. I first asked these questions to Alex on a lunch break and he told me to raise the questions for group discussion. “Nobody can force you to make work when you are more interested in discussing. However, I am glad that this workshop has inspired you. And it’s a good start. Maybe you will start thinking of a project three months from now, I don’t know. And you have inspired me. I didn’t expect that this workshop would generate a discourse, as I planned the workshop to generate new work from the colonial photographs.”
I also told Alex that I had expected to see the work of Kassian Cephas in the archival photographs that he shared, but there were only a few. I also had expected to discuss more of his work during the group sessions, but his name was only mentioned as one of the first native photographers in the Dutch East Indies. These facts intrigued me deeply. Kassian Cephas lived in the colonial period, he was born in 1845 and died in 1912. He was a professional photographer working for the Sultan of Yogyakarta and occasionally also working on commission for a number of book publications. Wasn’t he an important figure to talk about when we discuss about colonial photography? Alex nodded as if he was waiting for me to pause so he could reply.
The discussions proved to be overwhelming. I recall sometimes Dow smiled to me and told me how he found such intense discussions to be mind blowing. Some other times, it was I-Lann who said to me how the discussions were really exhausting but really interesting at the same time. More notes and discussions coming up next. End of part 1. ∎