Seeing is not believing; you are only seeing refracted visions.

Oscillating within the tripartite of work, failed relationship with administrative matters (rejected visa application in March) and familial obligations (wedding bells), air travel has lost its novelty on me. Not quite to the extent of knowing the various airports’ abbreviations by heart, but flight time would garner nonchalance and turbulences warrant an abyss of annoyance.

Air travel pains me physically – at worst – aesthetically. Think: dry skin, frizzed hair, and bloated body. It’s ironic how I have yet to acclimatise to the plane’s environment already. Despite all the time wasted travelling to the ends of the cities, transportation delays, and in transits; many hours have in fact been reclaimed. Confined to the seat for 6 hours straight without any form of connection, and food served to me if I’m lucky enough to bag cheap tickets on full-service flights, it grants me absolute undisturbed space and time to think, read, and write. Or pretend to.

Months ago, I was lamenting at the possible utility of the standalone folder “school”. Little did I expect to find solace in it. Between jolting awake with a strained neck and sieving through pictures to edit on my phone’s gallery, I realised my academic integrity and social morals are long shelved. Words like “gender”, “culture”, “class”, and “tradition” still put a trigger to my mind and I continue to use them with caution, but I don’t quite dissect them anymore. I read, and act like an outsider now.

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These photographs remind me of my caution with photographing previously after reading Refracted Visions by Karen Strassler. But aren’t I playing a role in essentialising certain places through my perfectly timed shots?

// Book Review //

Strassler, Karen. Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010)

“How can we both understand tangible things and do justice to their materiality? Following the academic trend of post-structuralism where there tends to be a division between literal, tangible materials and socio-political discourses, Karen Strassler in her work “Refracted Visions” makes a compelling case to rethink materiality. She develops an approach where the tangible materiality of things is neither subordinate to, nor isolated from, the discourses of the communities and societies. In effect, she works towards a “situated-ness” of the complex relationship among signs, interpretations, and objects – where she explores a history of vision; and history through visions.

This book is structured into six chapters, excluding the introduction and epilogue where each examines a photographic genre – amateur photography; studio portraiture; identity photographs; family ritual photographs; students’ photographs of demonstrations; and photographs of charismatic political figure. In each chapter, Strassler studies the aesthetic conventions within the photographs, and how people see, interpret and produce images. However, each genre is not framed or understood on its own and is only meaningful when used together with other chapters. This is because the mechanical production, documentary authority and political authenticity are placed on varying visualities; guiding people to see themselves and others in a certain manner. Individual historical trajectory and personal memories are hence not divorced from national history. Instead, it casts the overarching theme of “an Indonesian identity”; how photographs and photography make modern national subjects in post-colonial Indonesia. Interwoven in each chapter is also an examination of the processes of identification. Beyond the subjects captured in the photograph and the functionalities and significations these photographs retain, Strassler addresses the photographers, the events and discourses surrounding the taking, making, producing, circulating, and reproducing of these photographs.

There is no one modern national identity but it is engaged in an unending process of reworking and redefining by different groups in varying temporal orientations. It entails negotiations, contestations, ironies, and contingencies. First, the idea of “modern” or “modernity” works in relational terms with “traditions” and “traditional”, which both are constructed and adjusted to fit the needs of specific time. It works into a self-consciously modern way of seeing rural landscapes and their inhabitants as objects located in a timeless present – as pasts. Ironically, since the advent of photography in Indonesia, the Chinese-Indonesians were never regarded as natural ‘asli’ but only legal citizens. In fact, given the increasing emphasis on visuality in state documentation, the more it illuminates the ‘foreigners within’. The images of ‘asli’ these Chinese-Indonesians capture and produce continuously exclude themselves from the national narrative.

The intimate relationship between photographs and persons – not just their appearance and social identities (class and gender) – but even their emotions illustrated throughout the book is indisputable. The reflexive character of photographs provides fertile grounds for emotions; at the same time, controls and limits them. However, the affect in Strassler’s work is not simply a study of emotions, nor is it reducible to the affections of an individual. Following Gilles Deleuze’s post-subjective theory of affect, Strassler departs from the subject matter of psychoanalysis or ‘human subjectivity’. Rather, she suggests that affectivity can be studied in spaces beyond the scope of the human subject. Precisely, photographs and photography are reference points for affect – a space which generates emotions. An example among many other: the documentation of funeral rituals that decontextualises the nature of death but offers a sanctioned space for relations to channel and project their profound sentiments of loss. Similarly, the process and act of photographing itself is a space where emotions and behaviours, are cultivated. Children’s birthday parties and weddings favour a formal and predictable, even spectatorial behaviour. It often seems that rather than the event being photographed, the event was about photographing. Only when the photographs were taken that everyone collectively clapped, cheered, and resumed their activities. This also relied on the arrangement of physical objects – tiered cakes, the birthday child, and other friends – in space to sanction and convey appropriate moods.

The material outside of photographs refracts a spiritual inside. If the properties of a material exist even if never taken as elements of a sign, the reverse is also the case. A photograph can create a reality that does not necessarily exist. This understanding of material signs has moral implications. But why should materiality be a question of morals? It partially involves the historical conditions that defines the photographers in opposition to the photographed, such as class and gendered sentiments. It is within this socially specific semiotic concepts of iconicity and indexicality where Strassler enters the picture as both an interpreter and a participant. It leaves readers to wonder which photographic genre her works then fall under – if at all, and if her tilting of her photographs helped elevate or crystallised the nuanced identities of modern Indonesian subjects. It leaves me to wonder those whose photographs were never taken, excluded, or even destroyed. But her “subjects” not only stare back as silhouetted figures who serve as picturesque features of the landscape. These subjects were given a voice only in the reality she chose to capture. After all, seeing is emotive and inconsistent.

Our seeing is but refracted visions.”

And now, I wonder who, when, and where I should even start photographing.


1 Comment

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