Growing up to Indo‘Indo’ is a term that is commonly used to describe people of European (primarily Dutch) and Indonesian descent. grandparents who – like many of their generation – weren’t exactly talkative about their life in Semarang throughout war, independence, and the post-revolutionary period, it was their family albums that offered me small but rich glimpses into the homes, workshops, outdoors, dance halls, and theaters of their twenties and thirties. To situate these albums and the ecologies they hold in a larger body of photography in late- and postcolonial Indonesia comes with limitations, however, as a lot of work still lies in outlining this archive and identifying its many dimensions and facets.
In his richly illustrated A History of Photography in Indonesia: From the Colonial Era to the Digital Age, author and editor Brian C. Arnold makes a significant contribution to this project by offering a comprehensive and insightful exploration of how photography in Indonesia has over the years reflected and engendered institutional, social, and artistic change. Attesting to the lacunae, tensions, and anxieties that characterize this archive, rather than attempting an exhaustive compilation, the book elegantly navigates a wide but carefully selected array of perspectives, epistemologies, oeuvres, and topics. For example, in his chapter on the advent of art photography in Indonesia, Aminudin T.H. Siregar examines how after independence, art magazines like Zenith and Brochure Kesenian negotiated modernity, artistry, and cultural heritage in their search for ‘a new orientation that could articulate the identity of the new nation.’Aminudin T.H. Siregar, ‘Art Photography in Indonesia: J.M. Arastath Ro’is, Trisno Sumardjo, and Zenith Magazine,’ in A History of Photography in Indonesia: From the Colonial Era to the Digital Age, ed. Brian C. Arnold (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022), 192. Alexandra Kumala’s poetic and deeply personal chapter on the role of family albums in configurations of diasporic Chinese-Indonesian identity and ‘Indonesian-ness’ especially resonates with my queries and interests, asking ‘if I am not native to the land in which my own forebears were born, then where am I native to?’Alexandra Kumala, ‘On Silence, Seeking, and Speaking: Meditations on Identity, Photography, and Diaspora Through Family Albums,’ in A History of Photography in Indonesia: From the Colonial Era to the Digital Age, ed. Brian C. Arnold (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022), 377.
Yet as much as the many intelligent questions, observations, and explorations in the book deepen my understanding of my own positionality within this fabric – as they undoubtedly will for many readers in and outside of Indonesia – they serve as a painful though encouraging reminder of how much of it is yet unknown and to be learned, generally and personally.
Note to the reader. This article is part of Trigger’s 2023 ‘Summer Read’ series. We invited writers, researchers, photographers and curators to share what is currently occupying their mind through one publication they have been (re)reading during summer. What matters to them is now being recast as a challenge for today. Highly personal entries to a diversity of publications (photobooks, studies, monography, essay, historical research) lead us – readers of these readers – to reorient our gaze on (the history of) images and photography.