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Review: Picturing Indonesian modernity

Karen Strassler shows how modern photographic practices played a role in the making of national subjects in postcolonial Java

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn


Having read Karen Strassler’s previous publications on photographic history and the making of national memory in post-colonial (and post-reformasi) Indonesia, I started reading Refracted Visions with much excitement. I first became aware of Strassler’s work a few years ago because of my own interest in the visual history of Chinese Indonesians. Although not her primary research interest, in one of her journal articles Strassler examined how ethnic Chinese photographers acted as ‘cosmopolitan cultural brokers’ who translated global and colonial imageries into national idioms. Impressed by Strassler’s detailed ethnographic research, empathic storytelling and uncanny ability to link individual anecdotes to larger theories related to nation-making and modernist aspirations, I expected to see expansions of her earlier studies in Refracted Visions. What I read was not only an in-depth study of ethnic Chinese in Indonesian photographic history, but a beautifully written historical study of visuality, representation and the cultural significance of popular photography in the context of colonial and post-colonial Java.

Photography, modernity and nationalism

Refracted Visions grew out of Strassler’s 2003 doctoral thesis from the University of Michigan. The majority of data for this book was gathered during fieldwork conducted mainly in Yogyakarta between 1998 and 2000, just as Indonesia stirred with cries for reform following the fall of New Order. In the book’s preface, Strassler opens with

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