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.
In the previous post (you might want to read it first before continue reading this post) I wrote about how the workshop interested me in different way than it was planned by Alex. We were supposed to make something based on or inspired by the colonial photographs that he had shared with us prior to the workshop. The collection he shared consisted of almost a thousand photographs made during the colonial period (late 19th century to early 20th century) that he borrowed from four museum. I found it more interesting to discuss about these photographs rather than actually making something out of them.
One of the things that intrigued me was that we didn’t really discuss about the figure of Kassian Cephas (1845–1912), the first known native professional photographer who worked for the Sultan of Yogyakarta. As a native photographer who worked professionally during the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), I thought we should talk more about this person when we discuss about the so called colonial photography—but we didn’t.
The meaning of the term “colonial photography” itself had made me curious and also confused. “What is colonial photography?” I asked, “Shot in the colony during the colonial era? Taken by the colonizer, of the colonized? Made in the interest of and to support the agendas of colonialism?”
Alex replied with an explanation that he himself could not establish the exact definition of colonial photography, as the concept is fluidly used to describe the uses and practices of photography during the colonial period. It was the same reason that made him invent the categories into which he divided the archival photographs that he shared with us (see previous post). There was a two-volume encyclopedia of 19th century photography just released recently, but there was no “colonial photography” term in it, which Alex said, “only shows how complicated this field of study is, that even those experts ‘refused’ to define what ‘colonial photography’ is.”
In the 1980s for example, “colonial photographs” were defined as those that include the colonizer. While those showing local population (the colonized), in this case in the Dutch East Indies, were categorized as “Indische photographs.” Those definitions soon changed that both were then combined into one understanding of “colonial photographs” which were taken in the colonial period by white photographer. Even this newer definition was still problematic: How then do we look at the photographs made by photographers who are not white (be it native like Kassian Cephas or Chinese photographers)?
“Which is why I did not include the works of Kassian Cephas into our discussion,” Alex said. “It is complicated.”
During a lunch break, I had a little discussion with another participant Dow Wasiksiri (see previous post). He told me that he found an article that stated family photographs were not included in colonial photography discourse, even though made in the colony during the colonial era and showing white people (the colonizer). I think Alex had a rather unclear standpoint on this matter, as he included some family photographs in the collection that he shared with us (in folders Colonial portraits 1 and Colonial portraits 2) though less of white families but more of local population families. But it was understandable, as it was just impossible to define what “colonial photography” is—and what is not.
During the next two days of the workshop, 5–6 November, all participants were given time of their own to work on their projects. It was hoped that the discussions might help to their understanding towards the archival photographs, thus help them in creating new work out of those colonial photographs. On 7 November, all participants would present their progress in a group discussion, then on 9 November—the last day of the workshop—they would again present their progress to the public.
Adytama Pranada, or Charda, for example, made some drawings out of the colonial photographs he selected—he traced the photographs onto paper using a projector. For him, it was his way to better understand those photographs and a process he had to go through to understand what work he wanted to create. In the end, those drawings might not even be in the work. So the act of drawing was more like his contemplation, I think.
Dow kept going around Yogyakarta in search of the images he needed. I suggested him some places he could try visiting to find what he wanted to photograph, like the crowds of Beringharjo market, the ruins of Tamansari water castle, etc. He planned to put new elements into the old photographs he selected, so he had to find matching elements to put together. And he had to get as many as he could while he was in Yogyakarta, because he wouldn’t be able to come back and reshoot.
Other participants worked in front of their computers as they looked and looked again at the archival photographs and did their magics on screen onto their selection of photographs. Embarking on a similar idea with Dow to put the new and the old together within single frames, Abednego Trianto had photographed some still operational sugar factories in Java from similar vantage points—and using a similar old-technology but newer tool, a Linhof 4×5 camera—with the colonial photographs he selected of the same factories.
The difference was that while Dow put new elements into old photographs, Abed cut elements from the old photographs and pasted them into the new ones. But of course both worked on different subjects and had different statements, only implemented similar approach.
Yee I-Lann chose photographs of surveyors, topographers, cartographers, measurers, etc. then turned the background into plain white. By doing so, I-Lann left those people doing their things on what now seemed to be a white stage/space, as she erased the time and place contexts of the scenes. She wanted to show how measuring [by the colonizer] was a violent act towards the land [of the colonized].
Stephany Yaya Sungkharisma had a different opinion towards the Dutch colonization, that it was not all bad, but also brought positive things to us, like education. She tried to show it by displaying sets of two same images that she selected. The ones on the left-hand side were color-inverted as if they were negatives. The ones on the right-hand side were left as they were, but duplicated three times, each rotated 90, 180, and 270 degrees, then all four were flatened, so they became difficult to see. Her point: It was easier to look at the negatives than the positives. (It is good to be simple, but I think the issues Yaya addressed were really too complex, while the visualization was too simplified.)
Agan Harahap also tried to think simple, as he only joined the workshop on the fifth day, so he didn’t follow our early discussions. He tried to make work from the simple idea that sugar is sweet. His idea was to select a number of colonial photographs that show sugar plantations and the workers, both white and local. He would then print the images on a tea set, and invite people to drink tea together using the set, as the images might spark a conversation. The people invited, he said, must have been descended from sugar plantation or factory workers, be it white or local. He imagined that no matter their ancestors’ bitter (or sour) past, they would now enjoy the sweetness of sugar together, drinking tea and chatting.
As you can also imagine, this would result in a performance work. This was not how Agan usually makes work—he usually exhibits printed works—and he knew it. He also knew that this very simple idea had some weak spots, the weakest of all was his own discomfort in working out of his usual method. He just thought to give it a try and see how other participants would respond and comment. He then told me that he would later think of another idea that would implement his usual method and approach, as he would be more comfortable.
During the public presentation on 9 November, I noted two interesting comments from the audience. The first comment came from Nindityo Adipurnomo, a founder of Cemeti Art House. He said that the works that we made felt like an exoticization of old photographs. He thought we were to comment on the exoticization of the colonized by the colonizer. But by exoticizing old photographs, we were more or less doing the same thing. But I think, this could be understood as we now live in the post-colonial era. We never felt the colonization ourselves; we never felt the lives pictured in those old photographs. So I think, it was natural that those old photographs became exotic objects to us. But anyway, Nindityo’s comment was still a good point to think about.
The second comment was given by artist Titarubi. She said the problems shown in the works presented by the participants were old [colonial] problems, which she thinks are no longer there now as colonial period had ended. She asked whether there were new problems to be shown or to discuss. For me, this question could also be explained as mentioned above. I think, as young people of new generation, we never felt the colonization ourselves, so the problems related to colonization were anyway new to us. But then again, Tita’s comment was also a good note to discuss further.
(I would like to also note that the works presented by the workshop participants were all still in early stages and in progress. Things may change as discourses growing and discussions ongoing among the participants and also with Alex. The final results were expected to be exhibited next year in Yogyakarta.)
The workshop was closed that day as the exhibition of The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar was opened. Personally I would like to thank Alexander Supartono for the opportunity to join the workshop and for him to have shared his knowledge with us. Antariksa was also really helpful in the discussions, both on technical support (he is the Mac guy) and intellectual support (he has done numerous research on or related to colonialism in Indonesia). Also thanks to F.X. Harsono for sharing his insights and experiences. Last but not least, thanks to Aisyah Hilal, Ignatia Nilu, and Langgeng Art Foundation for hosting the workshop and the exhibition. ∎