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'Refracted Visions' Book Review

The National Value of Photography


Karen Strassler’s book, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java, explores the relationship between photography and culture in Java, Indonesia. The title itself, Refracted Visions, suggests that the viewpoint created from photography is somehow altered and manipulated. This directly relates to the content of the book as Strassler argues that photography creates biased views on nationalism and inaccurate views on Indonesian history.

In the introduction, the author mentions one specific local, Ibu Soekilah, who shares her first experience being photographed in the 1940s. At this time, photography was still a rare luxury for most people in the Indies. This shows the high value photography had in its early years. In fact, larger portraits were directly related to higher class citizens. In the first chapter, the author discusses that the use of photography in some places more than others shows that the people of Indonesia feel distressed compared to China. The author then goes to briefly go over a political history between China and Indonesia over their “religiously inflicted violence” (2009: 36). Here the author seems to suggest that the camera itself is a symbol of the political and religious conflict, as if to suggest that the development of photography is a status of success and wealth. This chapter has some quantum leaps of logic. Strassler’s examples of history have a disconnection to how photography later showed a lack of national confidence in Indonesians.

Furthermore, throughout the book, Strassler makes points on how the new technology of photography has impacted and even changed Indonesian culture. The most direct example of this change is the content of chapter three: photography used as a way of identifying citizens. "The identity photograph" was used to create a legitimate death and became traditional on display at the funeral. In other words, photographs a have become a way to legitimize existence and identify individuals.

The introduction also includes a brief explanation of images as symbols, and how it relates to National iconographies. Then the introduction goes through a brief history of Indonesia, specifically the revolution towards Indonesia Independence. The introduction is making connections with photojournalism and imaging them in relation to the Indonesia revolution. It shows the importance of imaging by “represented the nation to itself” and “capturing on film … historical moments” (2009: 7). Overall, the introduction of the book is mentioning the importance photography can have on both history and nationalism.

The second chapter is about how photography can be quite fake. Strassler brings a lot of attention to the use of backdrops to help make her argument. Backdrops become popular in the 1950s in Indonesia and the author argues that the use of backdrops was a way to manipulate identity. A lot of the backdrops include pictures of high luxury items likes cars and planes, this Western look shows the identity desire of the people to be Western. This is a relationship between photography and Indonesian post-colonialism. More importantly, it is a great example of how photography can manipulate the perception of identity. Another great example of photography distortion identity is found in the fourth chapter, which is about how photography was used to create family documentation and family memories. The author brings up something called “dokumentasi”; dokumentasi is a specific way of seeing the family in Indonesian culture (2009: 170). It is not about remembering things as they actually were; it is about creating an illusion of high class and perfection.

Chapter five moves to a more serious subject, "Witnessing History." This chapter is about photography used as a tool to capture history, as the camera has more credit of legitimacy than paintings. These photos today can now be used as a way to document this event. However, the bias of the protestors only shows half the story.

In the epilogue, the author closes with a story about a woman who burns every photograph of her husband to hide the trace that he ever existed. She does this to help him escape his past of political activism towards communism. The author chose to end with this story to point out the flaw in photography; photography is not the whole story. Some pictures may have been destroyed, pictures of certain events never taken, and in the case of backdrops, the truth lies just outside the frame of the photograph. The epilogue also reviews the technological impact photography has had on Indonesia. As media technology grows in Indonesia, it directly affects Indonesia. Photography affects politics, national identity, personal relationships, and personal sense of belonging.

In conclusion, Stassler’s work contributes to the small field of media anthropology by showing the effects new media can have on a culture. Indonesia’s acceptance and use of photography changed the way they saw culture, shared memories and identified citizens. While her work makes a step forward in her field her work, it still seems to be missing connections to explain why and how new technology affects cultural identity. Specifically, when she tries to use history in her explanations, there appears to be a disconnection between her examples and conclusions. Strassler does a great job at explaining why photography is not always a reliable resource. As photographers have the power to take a picture of what they want the viewer to see.

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'Refracted Visions' Book Review
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