Souvenir From the Past

*This writing is a draft for a part of a book about Indonesian photo collection in colonization era,which will be publish by Tropen Museum.

My mother just owned a digital camera. She always carries it in her bag everywhere she goes, and often has her pictures taken with the background of the places she is visiting, the food she is eating, or simply pictures of herself wearing the clothes she just bought. One day I asked her what it was made her like being photographed so much. She answered, “Photographs give me a way to always exist.”

It might be unaware or unconscious, what my mother said is the same with Susan Sontag said as memento mori. Sontag said through her On Photography, “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Different with film, photography has a poetic impression, full of nostalgic and sentimental feeling because it is a slice of time, not a flow. Each still photography is a privileged moment that changed into a slim object that one can keep and look again. By her own effort, my mother consciously photographed her self and objects around that attracted her; by taking pictures she is remembering and even reminds, that she was exist and will always be.

The issue of “to exist” in photography has to do with how reality is represented. It is also related to how memories about the past have been constructed. In its early days, camera technology was considered as capable of recording reality perfectly, and photographs, therefore, were often used in science as proofs. As the technology developed, however, it became increasingly easier for lay people to use the camera, and thinkers started to question the meaning of the reality captured by the photographic camera. A piece of photograph constituted a choreographed visual record: to take pictures is to select what one wants to present in a single frame. When a photographer is taking a picture, he or she is not capturing the reality but instead is constructing it.

As I was presented with a collection of photographs taken in Dutch-Indies photo-studios in 1860 – 1940, I tried to reconsider how reality and memory have been articulated in photographs. In the collection of photographs, we will not see any representations of individuals—unlike the pictures of my mother, an individual who has been represented through her pictures. Instead, in this set of pictures we will see surfaces of human types, such as that of an itinerant satay seller wearing a broad woven-bamboo hat, surrounded by three customers, each of them holding a piece of satay; of two sarong-wearing bare-chested females, each with a bamboo basket on her head; and of two frowning men wearing sarongs, standing under broad banana leaves as if protecting themselves from rain. All of these activities had been reconstructed in a photo studio.I think the colonial photographers were trying to focus their attention on the status symbols as they took pictures of the indigenous people in the studio, with a distance spanned between the beholder and the beheld. What was interesting for the photographer’s eyes was not who was being photographed, but what the person was wearing or carrying, or what he or she was doing. What was interesting for the photographers’ eyes are not the persons who were portrayed, but what they were wearing, what they were carrying and what the subject were doing, or in the pictures that I described above is satay carrier, bamboo baskets on the women’s heads, uncovered breasts and banana leaves: some things which seemed odd for them. These photographers are collecting the cultural artefacts from a colony. I think this focus grows naturally with the big curiosity when seeing something that completely different with their own culture. With the perception like a conventional anthropologist, these pictures can give an impression that the Eastern, or in this case, Indonesians is a kind of primitive tribe from a remote side of the world which not well connected with development of age.

Imagining how photographers selected and constructed reality in the photo studio is a kind of effort to understand how the West viewed the East at that time. On the contrary, when these subjects look at their pictures, I see frightened expression, rigid or awkward gesture. I’m not really sure; I haven’t had enough time to investigate the relation between the photographer and the persons who were portrayed. Did they under threat? Or did they get paid like photo models? From the expression of these people, I reflect that their frightened expression and awkward gesture might be an indirect effort of defence. These photographers could direct their pose, clothes and background, but the subject’s expression could not lie. When these photographs was published, was it true that this was a cultural artefacts about clothes and culture? I think that frightened gaze and rigid gesture was a detail of big description on how the colonization pushed them to be “the others”, to be some primitive clowns.

In advance, there were another efforts from the sons and daughters of rich aristocrats who had access to the camera technology, where they could construct their selves more simply with unpretentious poses in extravagant royal costumes. In these pictures, they lifted up their chins highly, tried to show their pride and dignity. Although the West might see this as a merely exotic thing, for me this effort was an opponent of the image, which was built by the Western photographers. They started to portray their selves as an effort for being “exist” with their own way. Just like my mother did.

In the practice of contemporary photography in Indonesia, this method of constructing realities becomes a common method of the photographers to communicate the message or ideas of their works. This tends to their consciousness of the development of photojournalism discourse, which can’t picture the reality entirely.

The studio pictures that are in the archives of the Tropenmuseum remind me of a corner near the cashier’s compartment in Mirota Batik souvenir shop at one end of Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta. Mirota Batik sells a multitude of craftwork such as sculptures, batik clothes and fabric, key holders, and naturally also postcards, those durable pieces of paper commonly bought as souvenirs for friends and family members. Among these photographs, one particular series intrigues me: the series of “olden days” pictures, which reproduces pictures of the Indonesian archipelago of yore. One of the pictures in the series that I found was that of an itinerant key maker carrying his equipment in two containers and a yoke. The picture was taken in a studio over the background image of the tropical rainforest.

The style of the photograph is similar with some pictures that can be found in the Tropenmuseum’s archives, and I think the photo formed a part of the collection of pictures taken in 1860 – 1940. This made me reflect on how we see our identity on photographs. For me, it is interesting how these old photographs are deemed valuable, whether aesthetically or as mementoes, and worthy to be made into postcards. Considering that the photographs had certainly been produced by the colonial or Dutch photographers, it means that at the end of the day, we also perceive the “reality” of our past from the perspective of the West. Just like Kassian Cephas who took his pictures using the perspective of the West, we also see the pictures like a Dutch who is visiting Indonesia on a trip. Apparently, the only visual records we have about the nation’s past are found in mere exotic souvenirs. This book publishing project by Tropenmuseum is a very valuable effort and needs to be seen as a method for contextualizing the collected archives which are handled and very carefully examined with such a great attention on history. One thing that needs to be underlined is that I find it extremely important for us to discover and analyze not only photographs of Indonesia, but also, or especially also, the pictures taken by Indonesians, in order to see how the East perceives their own identity.

A Javanese aristocrat, in one of her letters posthumously published in 1990 as a book titled Door Duisternis Tot Licht (Through the Darkness to the Light), had already expressed such a sentiment. I will close this article with a fragment of what the Javanese lady, R.A. Kartini, wrote: “I often wish I had photographic equipment and was able to take pictures of our people—in ways that only I could do, not the ways of the European. There are so many things that I want to convey in words and in pictures so that the European can have the true image about us, the Javanese.”


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