Cristina Nualart reviews Zhuang Wubin’s 2016 survey of Southeast Asian photography
Zhuang Wubin, Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey, National University of Singapore Press, Singapore, 2016
524 pages, ISBN 978 9814722124
Four years after the publication of Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology, edited by Nora A Taylor and Boreth Ly, comes another broad exploration of visual culture in the region.  Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey is a single-author volume, ambitious in scope and depth of research, that spans ten countries. Zhuang Wubin packs a lot of information into his book, limiting and neatly condensing what could easily be a far bigger volume. To contextualise each country, he gives only the bare bones of socio-historical facts. The background information on each photographer is fast-paced with personal details, anecdotes and excerpts from interviews that give us a rounded sense of the person.
From the outset, the author lays out his conceptual approach: ‘to flatten the hierarchy of different photographic practices’ (p 9), and explore their presence in the visual arts, the media and amateur circles. Although focused on the visual arts, it also includes the full range of image-making work. Wubin hopes that this text will help shape a canon for photography in Southeast Asia. A regional canon is necessary, in his view, firstly because the lack of one can lead to the application by default of Western paradigms to Southeast Asian photography, and secondly because ownership of a classification system would encourage a better practice and critique of photography. More than one cited photographer rejects or resents what they perceive as a Western imposition of binary rigidity, while several photographers interviewed speak of the flip side of no canon: not feeling weighted by categories or institutionalised parameters. Although taxonomies should be used as tools and not prisons, it could be argued that the lack of a canon has been conducive to the fluidity of approaches shown, multi-layered and overlapping, that coalesce into a vibrant landscape rich in free and open-minded practices. Talking about fine art photography in 2002, curator Lindy Poh, from Singapore, appears to have opinions close to Wubin’s heart. Both wish for a differentiation of genres (eg, advertising, fashion photography, photojournalism, street photography and technical photography, etc) in the belief that such delimitations will help to fine-tune the appraisal of the medium. Wubin, nonetheless, does not seem to have quite resolved the problems he maps out. He proposes the metaphor ‘embedded practices’ to bridge the gap, without clearly articulating a framework for this embodiment. Summarising these ideas in the ‘Afterword’, he again gives more hope than theory, leaving room for future developments.
There is some irony in the fact that Wubin explicitly wants to give a more defined shape to photographic categories, while he inadvertently creates a new one: Photoshop becomes a typology (‘In his Photoshop work’ p 134, ‘a set of Photoshop images’ p 437). The repetition of the word Photoshop as if it were the only image editing programme in existence is tiresome, it may well be that every one of the photographers interviewed uses this particular brand, yet as popular as the Adobe software is, there are alternatives. Not only is the reiteration of the brand occasionally redundant, it makes the writing sound too much like advertising, and carries further complications. Wubin approximates, even equates, the use of Photoshop with the making of conceptual photography. This is odd, since manipulation in itself is hardly exclusive to art photography, and as Wubin says, it has long been common practice even in analogue photography.
The simplicity of the structure – one nation per chapter – is deceptive. A taxonomy that would enhance the volume is a guiding chapter-by-chapter summary. Sometimes this exists in the text, but a paragraph halfway through the second page of the chapter on Cambodia is not the most logical place to look for it. Apart from short chapters like Brunei, the narrative often goes back and forth between certain photographers, groups or institutions. This is a consequence of the years of research, parts of which have already led to articles and exhibition catalogues. The scattered pattern also arises from the valuable effort made to join ideas and link them into a bigger picture, but it makes the read a bit erratic, dispersing information that begs to belong to the group. Headers are unpredictable, ranging from the descriptive to the counterproductive (‘Post photography’, p 26). Some photographers or periods get them, some do not. In the chapter on Indonesia, for example, there is no monographic section for the collective Ruang MES 56, although the group and its members are frequently mentioned throughout thirty pages.
Typically, each chapter begins with a historical outline from the colonial era. Considerable effort has been made to trace the arrival of the first camera or photographic studios in each country. Explicitly, the focus is on native practitioners, and principally contemporary, but the space allocated to external influences is never wasted, amusing the reader with entrepreneurial stories such as that of Adolph Schaeffer, who in 1844 funded his travels from Europe to Indonesia by promising photographs of Asia to the Dutch in exchange for his trip.
Tied in with these obscure facts come the early photographers, regardless of their approach, be it artistic, commercial or documentary. To round out the national contexts, Wubin unearths early newspapers or publications that printed photographs – or theorised about them, like Jakarta’s arts and literary journal Zenith. We learn, too, of educational initiatives, photo clubs, festivals, galleries and forums that provided specific opportunities for photographers. A compelling issue that the author has also explored is the local photographic terminology. Not forgetting that linguistic issues affect the understanding of photographic practices in a given country, where relevant, various translations and connotations of the country’s lexicon are contrasted.
The author has mined local newspapers, national documentation archives and all kinds of galleries and art centres. Quotes from curators, cultural theorists and art historians contribute to a compact tapestry of ideas. In the chapter on Thailand, in only three pages (pp 139–141), Wubin interweaves reflections by David Teh, Caverlee Cary, Barend Jan Terwiel, Apinan Poshyananda, Thongchai Winichakul and Rosalind Morris. Needless to say, many of their comments could be unravelled and extended, but it is refreshing to puzzle over unexplored ramifications. Wubin is under no illusion that this survey has only just begun to scratch the surface.
The multiple entwined sources aim to frame photography’s mutating status. Conflict between fine art and photography is one of the questions that the experts cited in the book often battle with. For example, Indonesian art historian Sanento Yuliman approved of wide-ranging photographic practices, while purist R M Soelarko believed that photography could only remain so within defined boundaries, which exclude painted or manipulated photographs; these could be art, but not photography. On his part, artist FX Harsono shuns the creation of photography as something artistic, yet treats it like a found object.
If the most frequent debate surrounds the perceptions of a hierarchy between documentary and artistic photography, another preoccupation that keeps bubbling under the surface is the ontology of photography. Ringo Bunoan is disenchanted with photographic exhibitions, which by their very nature filter the experience that catalysed the image. For her, ‘photography is an acknowledgement that everything is not permanent’ (p 359). Raymundo Albano, from the Philippines, finds a different problem with gallery exhibitions, they can condition photographers to work a certain way, because ‘the gallery treats the photograph like a print or painting, it favours those that are perfect as prints and those that look like paintings’ (p 383). Other practitioners grapple with installation and performance art as they integrate them into art photography, or vice-versa.
It is the interviews with photographers that provide the richest material, although we are only offered fragments. Wubin paraphrases and inserts frequent quotes to share the faceted viewpoints he discovers. In this way, the author takes a distant position, but his self-proclaimed neutrality is hard to sustain. He implicitly positions most practices below his beloved conceptual photography by constantly suggesting an evolutionary progress of photography that over time moves in the direction of contemporary art photography, in sentences that yearn for street photography’s snappiness: ‘I hope that the spirit of emancipation that binds the highlighted practitioners here will drive the development of photography in cultural productions in the near future’ (p 241). The author avoids confronting potentially controversial matters, instead illustrating their nuances via the words of others. Thus we discover that some authors blame colonialism for the pictorial practice of amateur photo clubs in Indonesia from the 1960s to the 1980s, yet others see how the same practice can be a local means of national empowerment.
Just as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Edward Weston are influential to some photographers interviewed, it would be unusual to encounter a book on photography that did not at some point mention Susan Sontag or Vilém Flusser. Nevertheless, the emphasis is placed on people who work in Southeast Asia, who often raise questions about Western modes of work or thinking, particularly where power imbalance is concerned. Sebastião Salgado is one well-known photographer who receives criticism from various interviewees. Disaster reportage is also examined with a critical eye. Wubin sees a contrast between the ‘sense of helplessness and destruction typically evoked in disaster reportage’ (p 89) and some locally produced work. Disaster reportage is assumed to be a voyeuristic, near-pornographic monolithic practice, a generalisation that is not hard to disagree with. Southeast Asian photographers offer alternative depictions of stories around human suffering without resorting to mass-media-friendly drama, such as the work of Mamul Ismuntoro on a mudslide destruction in 2006 or Mohamad Iqbal’s 2005 project on tsunami survivors from Aceh. Iqbal’s working method and display decisions gave some empowerment to people who in mainstream media would have been portrayed as victims to be pitied. Wubin’s elucidation goes beyond simplistic binary comparisons between a Western gaze over the ‘other’ and the on-the-ground views. He retraces a century to illustrate how photographic practice was slowly embedded in Indonesian society, via the interpretation made by an anthropologist of Dutch commercial photographs taken in Aceh in 1901:
James T. Siegel notes that the Acehnese then had no need for photography because they did not have the western notion of the ‘sublime’. In the Acehnese framing of that holy war, the fallen bodies did not serve as memorials. Instead, they served as signs that the fallen were now alive in paradise. For the Acehnese viewers, an image of the fallen would remind them of their religious duty in that war. Siegel goes on to claim that there was no need for Acehnese photographers until well into the 20th century. (p 89)
Again, the author provides the reader with just enough facts with which to build a fascinating analysis of social change. With equal synthesis, regional politics are summarised to contextualise issues that impinge on photography (such as media control), whereas religion is discussed primarily through its occasional relevance to particular works. It is thus seen as a personal issue, not a public one. Some photographers probe their own or their constituencies’ religious beliefs. More interesting is how photography can be absorbed into belief systems, as demonstrated by the Thai Buddhist monk who is a practising photographer.
Where Photography in Southeast Asia stands out, apart from giving voice to some very eloquent photographers, is in pinpointing singularities that ripple across the region. These include practitioners’ self-critiques and sources of inspiration, perceptions of East-West frameworks, as well as pragmatic considerations such as available facilities, remuneration and education. Professional handicaps experienced by some of these photographers include not having contacts, not knowing how to write ‘nice proposals’ (p 89), low pay or poor proficiency in English, all an obstacle to getting better paid international work. These topics alone are enough to bond disparate photographers from Laos to Myanmar. The book title creates the expectation that the heterogeneous region shares affinities and styles. The attempt to describe supra-national characteristics is not fully fleshed out here, nor was it ever intended to be, but nonetheless contributes to work on these lines that other thinkers have started doing. Some exhibitions have sought regional idiosyncrasies, for example Negotiating Home, History and Nation (Singapore Art Museum, 2011), or the exhibitions curated by Wubin himself in Thailand: Family Snaps: Photography in Southeast Asia (Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, 2014) and Documenting as Method: Photography In Southeast Asia (Chiang Mai Photo Festival, 2015), the theoretical underpinnings of which run through this book.
Wubin evidently relishes all manifestations of camera-made images, whether salon photography, photojournalism, or vernacular photography, undertaking formidable work to track a wide variety of practitioners. There is a bias, as he himself acknowledges when admitting that most of the photographers featured in the rather extensive Singapore chapter are of Chinese and not Malay descent; or writing people’s names in Chinese characters but not in, say, Thai or Khmer scripts. Nonetheless, he has located early practitioners, emerging practitioners, male and female photographers of diverse approaches and even some ethnic minority photographers, such as Kat Palasi, a Filipino with indigenous Ibaloi roots, Ka Xiong, of Hmong descent, or Preeyachanok Ketsuwan, a Thai Yai minority from the north of Thailand. Vietnamese institutional narratives often boast about the more than fifty indigenous groups in the country – minority groups who are, allegedly, institutionally marginalised. For this or other reasons, no Vietnamese photographer mentioned comes from an ethnic minority. Vietnam also has a distinct lack of female photographers, one gathers, given that only one – award-winning Maika Elan – is mentioned in this substantial chapter. Not mentioned is artist Nguyen Phuong Linh’s work with cyanotypes, which would fit in well with Wubin’s drive to rescue outdated practices. Throughout the volume, he makes readers long for the recuperation of forgotten techniques and undervalued practices that he has given a little attention to.
This book activates ideas from various disciplines and gives room for much productive discussion. While waiting for deeper analyses to come forth from the issues raised by Wubin, the reader can learn of the extended series of photographic projects that, country after country, have come out of Southeast Asia in recent years. Thanks to the content, this book is an engaging read, despite the poor design decision to use a tiny ten-point font in a substantial hardback that cannot be lifted easily. For this reason, an electronic version might be easier to read. The high quality, full-page images look good on glossy paper, but they are printed in black and white, which makes the e-book idea even more attractive, as there would be no loss of chromatic information.
 Nora A Taylor and Boreth Ly, eds, Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology, Ithaca, New York, Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2012
Cristina Nualart is a member of GIA (Grupo de Investigación Asia) at Universidad Complutense, Madrid. She is a researcher on the VASDiV (Visual Activism and Sexual Diversity in Vietnam) project, funded by an AHRC/GCRF Research Networking grant. Her publications in English include ‘Queer art in Vietnam: from closet to pride in two decades’ (Palgrave Communications 2, 2016) and ‘Contemporary Feminist Art in Vietnam: The visual emergence of agency’ (Irish Journal of Asian Studies, vol 4, 2018).