Against forgetting


I am recently curating a photography exhibition by two photographers, Rangga Purbaya (Indonesian) and Nora Scheidler (German), titled “Stories Left Untold” [1] [2] and is currently on show at iCAN Gallery, Yogyakarta, through 28 October 2015. We started talking about this exhibition around a year ago, so in one interview I said that I am glad that the show is finally materialized.

The two projects being shown side by side are personal stories for each photographers. Both stories are intertwined with larger historical events that determined each countries’ future. Rangga’s is about his grandfather who disappeared in Yogyakarta during the 1965 events, while Nora’s is about the Hohenschönhausen prison where his father was once held in 1968–69.

I emphasised my curatorial essay on against forgetting, as I found it is what the two works are about. Nora made portraits of the former political prisoners of Hohenschönhausen to tell their stories, how ridiculously they were caught and held for. Nora is also probably the last person to photograph the prison in its original condition, before it was renovated. Rangga retraced his grandfather’s disappearance so his descendants will not forget about him and the dark history of Indonesia.

The exhibition is a part of German Festival which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the German reunification (after the fall of the Berlin Wall), which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1965 events in Indonesia. The exhibition is funded by Goethe-Institut Indonesia.

“Stories Left Untold” photography exhibition
Nora Scheidler and Rangga Purbaya
Curated by Budi N.D. Dharmawan

2–28 October 2015, open Tue–Sun 10.00–19.00,
Indonesia Contemporary Art Network (iCAN) Gallery,
Jalan Suryodiningratan 39, Yogyakarta.
Free admission, open for public.

Opening 2 October 2015 19.00.
Artists’ talk 3 October 2015 16.00.



Here is my curatorial essay (go here for Bahasa Indonesia):

Against Forgetting

I visited Tuol Sleng prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields six years ago. I recalled these well-known sites of massacre again when listening to Rangga Purbaya (born 1976) talked about his grandfather and Nora Scheidler (born 1979), her father. Their stories are the subject of the “Stories Left Untold” show. Rangga’s grandfather went missing in 1965, who knows from what cause, whether or where he was murdered and buried. Nora’s father was detained without trial for one and a half years in a government prison in East Germany between 1968 and 1969.

Those detained at S-21 prison were also held without trial. Today people can visit the prison, now renamed the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The buildings are preserved in their original 1975–1979 state when the Khmer Rouge converted this middle school into a prison, partitioned the classrooms into brick-walled cells. Here, wardens and prison guards, many still teenagers, were charged with torturing those suspected of being against the regime.

Over the span of four years, between 17,000 and 20,000 people were detained in Tuol Sleng. Men, young and old, children, even mothers with their babies. Archived photos of the detainees (registration numbers safety pinned on their necks), now exhibited in one museum hall. They were tortured and forced to admit to crimes they did not commit. The torture slowly killed many of the prisoners. Others killed themselves or were murdered ruthlessly. Initially, the wardens buried the dead near the prison but after a year, they ran out of land.

Once the prison graves were filled, prisoners were killed at a field in Choeung Ek, a beautiful, peaceful farming village 15 kilometers from Phnom Penh. Tens, if not hundreds, of people were executed at a time. An amplifier hung from a nearby tree broadcasted songs, masking the victims’ cries. Over 8,800 bodies were exhumed from the mass graves at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Today, a Buddhist stupa stands near the site to appease the souls of those killed.

Terror is often used by regimes to perpetuate their power. Rulers spread fear to make people submissive, obedient. Those that rally against the establishment are suppressed, detained, tortured, killed, or made to disappear. Suspicion of anti-regime sentiment is reason enough to be branded a rebel. This was the fate of those imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, killed in Choeung Ek, Rangga’s grandfather and Nora’s father.


Nora photographed the Hohenschönhausen prison in northeastern Berlin, where her father, Hans-Jochen Scheidler (born 1943), and his friends were held after distributing 800 flyers protesting the intervention of the Soviet Union in the Prague Spring uprising in 1968. Like Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, Hohenschönhausen is now a museum. The difference is that Hohenschönhausen inmates were subjected to psychological rather than physical torture. Inmates were not allowed to see one another, let alone have conversations. Cell windows had thick, opaque glass so that detainees could not see the outside world. Prison interrogations were riddled with lies, inmates were told that their wives had eloped and abandoned them.

Hans-Jochen knew that he needed to keep his mind active in order to keep from going insane not many people can cope with solitary confinement in a narrow, silent cell. He went on hunger strike to request a book to read to fill his time. And when the warden finally gave him a book, he read it over and over again, from front to back, back to front, even upside down. “If we sat facing each other while I was writing, he could still read my handwriting with ease,” Nora said of Hans-Jochen’s later years.

Rangga’s grandfather, Boentardjo Amaroen Kartowinoto (born 1919), was a teacher at Tamansiswa. He took up arms against Japanese colonists. He joined the Barisan Banteng during the battle of Kotabaru, Yogyakarta, on 7 October 1945. Since 1947, Boentardjo was active in the Peasants Front of Indonesia (BTI) and even represented the organisation in the local Yogyakarta assembly. He was an instructor with the regional agricultural office. He was also active in the Setia Hati martial arts (pencak silat) community, and the Kepanduan Bangsa Indonesia scouts organisation. But on 10 November 1965, Rangga’s grandfather was taken from his house and never seen again, permanently altering the lives of his wife and seven children—Rangga’s father among them.

Rangga’s grandmother died two years after her husband disappeared. The seven children were forced to scatter, entrusted to different relatives. They were only able to regroup in Jakarta in 1970. Since their father disappeared in 1965, they did not dare mention the event. As the eldest child, Rangga’s father was now the head of the family. To ease his siblings’ prospects at school and work, he falsified his father’s death records to say that that Boentardjo did not disappear, but actually died before 1965.

After the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Rangga’s father revealed to his children that their grandfather had disappeared. After some searching, Rangga’s father surmised that Boentardjo was brought to a vertical cave in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta, and may have died there. Not all the relatives supported his search. Many said they would rather not dredge up the past. “They had this extraordinary fear, such that they could not even talk about events fifty years since they occurred,” said Rangga.

A few years ago, reporter Hilde Jansen and photographer Jan Banning revealed similar horrors when researching the jugun ianfu (Indonesian women forced to serve the Japanese troops as sex slaves during the 1940s). The stigma of “having been used by the colonizers” was considered such a disgrace to the victims that they were too scared to recall their painful past. For them it was like scraping a scab. Yet that is precisely what pushed Hilde and Jan to record the victims’ stories. The duo wanted to ensure that these events were not forgotten or swallowed by the passage of time, but instead revealed so they did not recur.


Celebrated American photographer Garry Winogrand famously said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.” Photography was the medium he used to make sense of the world, at least for himself. This is actually the nature of photography. It freezes one slice of an event for eternity. Photography cuts and frames events so we can focus on a single moment in the smorgasbord that is the daily world flitting before our eyes.

Photography offers evidence of things past. Photos offer us another opportunity to revisit events we did not understand when they occurred, things we encountered before, when our thoughts were still undigested. Many photographers actually started their works and projects from unknowingness and curiosity.

Nora started her photography project from this unknowingness—she wasn’t even born when her father was arrested. In 1968, Hans-Jochen Scheidler disappeared. Nora’s grandparents found out that their son was imprisoned only months later. When Nora’s grandmother got an opportunity to visit her son in jail, he appeared thinner, different. Witnessing her son’s state bruised Nora’s grandmother, made her close off from the world. Nora revisited the jail to try understand what had caused the change in her father and grandmother.

Taking a documentary approach, Nora interviewed and photographed her father and other ex-political prisoners to dig up stories from behind Hohenschönhausen’s walls and steel doors. Many of them had returned to the prison to work as tour guides (including Nora’s father since 2009). They described their imprisonment to curious visitors. With a medium-format camera, Nora also documented the segments of the prison complex that were still intact, room by room.

Rangga’s photo project was also a form of retracing. Rangga’s search, like his father’s, started from a place of no knowledge and morphed into a desire to shatter that ignorance. Rangga shot portraits of family members and interviewed them about their memories of Boentardjo Amaroen Kartowinoto. He also created landscape photos of places connected to his grandfather’s disappearance. He photographed one route that was his father’s youngest sister’s silent search for traces of her father between college classes in the 1970s.

For this project, Rangga gathered and documented his grandfather’s personal items which had been stowed in the homes of various relatives: his journal, his certificates and other documents, his briefcase, shaving implements, a treasure chest. Rangga and I tried to conjure an image of his grandfather’s life through these personal items. In his journal, for example, he drew a series of gestures. We thought, he was making notes on martial arts moves.


Documentation and documents come from the Latin word “docere,” which means “to teach.” Daily, we encounter documents: official records (such as research reports), evidence (diplomas, land acts, charters), and lessons on the past (archives). In comparison, photography is a more active form of documentation: recording events to serve as evidence or lessons later. Documentary, then, is a function and not a mere form.

Photography allows us to imprison reality, so we can possess the past, Susan Sontag wrote in 1977. With a camera, we can capture within a fraction of a second events that will become history moments later. Since its birth was announced in 1839, photography has evolved into a classic medium for coming to grips with the world. Pioneering photographers have recorded contemporary events and developments.

Entering the 20th century, documentary photography found its classic outlines. During and after the World War II period, documentary photography—the covering of complex narratives over longer periods of time—became synonymous with photojournalism—the recording of current events. In the decade following the war, documentary photographers were faced with a more complex universe, and they shot with a more personal point of view, not limiting themselves to merely recording events.

Many contemporary photographers have explored documentary approach in artistic works, as well as artistic approach in documentary works. The line between documentary photography and art is getting blurry and it has spurred debates. However, the more personal and artistic approaches are generally still accepted in the documentary realm, as long as there is no manipulation in what they record—still considered taboo in documentary and journalism.

Though photographs are based on reality, a photographer’s bias—his perspective, exposure, composition and other choice—is inevitably present. That is, photography offers a commentary on the world. It is a photographer’s way of making sense of the world. So Rangga Purbaya and Nora Scheidler delve into their stories with a documentary approach, extracting not just a moment in time, but also portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, referencing to classical art.


Years past, the world changed; still there are many questions that have gone unanswered. Questions left to aside too long get harder to answer because the people with answers have aged or died with memories. It is necessary to record because we tend to forget. The efforts to gag the sounds of memory don’t silence us or make us push aside or forget events. Instead they make the questioners ask that much louder about what is not supposed to be known. I think this is what Milan Kundera meant when he wrote in 1978 that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

It is this struggle against forgetting that made Nora’s father and the other Hohenschönhausen prisoners return to the building where they had been imprisoned to work as tour guides. Initially, they did this on a voluntary basis but museum management finally officially recruited them. It is the same struggle against forgetting that drove Nora to document the prison as it looked when it was operational. Right after Nora finished her project, the second and third floors were tidied up, so they no longer looked as they did when it was a functional prison.

Because of the limited access to information and the fear still present in many peoples’ minds, Rangga and his family can only guess that Boentardjo Amaroen Kartowinoto’s arrest was linked to his activities in the Peasants Front of Indonesia. The government started putting pressure on the association in 1965. However, no one knows precisely why Boentardjo was arrested or is still missing to this day. Though the family’s search efforts led them to the vertical cave in Gunungkidul, no person or record verified that Boentardjo had been there, or was met his death there.

Boentardjo is just one in hundreds of thousand people missing or killed during the events of 1965. The Indonesian government has yet to explain what happened then. Until now, there are many other people missing or killed for being suspected against the ruling regime. Munir Said Thalib was poisoned to death on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam on 7 September 2004. His case came to court trial and dragged in a high ranking intelligence officer, but the judge did not indict. At the dusk of the New Order administration, Munir advocated for the search for people missing around the Reformasi of 1998—an event that the government denies. One of those who disappeared in this “non-event” was Wiji Thukul.

Wiji Thukul disappeared in 1998. After a secret farewell with his wife, he ran from government security forces pursuing him in connection with the events of 27 July 1996. This son of a bicycle rickshaw driver from Solo was a frequent participant in various protests against the government and its financiers. He was arrested and nearly blinded by beatings. Yet, he never gave up, continuing instead to speak out against injustice. Under a repressive regime, it is no wonder that this man of letters was targeted.

As in Boentardjo’s arrest and Munir’s assassination, Thukul’s family was also left with a mystery. They still know nothing of his whereabouts. This unknowingness is a shadow that haunts them, and us. If the authorities allowed what happened to Thukul, Munir, Boentardjo and others, these occurrences could happen to us. I would like to think, that these unrevealed tales can spark hope, stoke the coals, such that whom is lost can be found and justice can be upheld.

Budi N.D. Dharmawan
Yogyakarta, August 2015


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