Reading Karen Strassler’s Refracted Visions is a journey to trace how “Indonesia” is imagined, questioned, and remade not through the main routes of nationalism—the official images and narratives produced by the state, whose investment in visual culture was especially lavish during the New Order period (1965–1998)—but rather through the roads taken by amateur photographers, owners of photo studios, student demonstrators, or ordinary Javanese women such as Ibu (Ms.) Soekilah, whose personal story opens the introduction of the book. Ibu Soekilah becomes a character whose “intimate artifacts” (3)—her photographs—appear in different chapters of the book and conflate with other visions of the nation.
Covering the span from the beginning of the 20th century to the crucial moment following the 1998 resignation of Suharto as Strassler began her PhD. field work in Indonesia, the book is structured around six genres of popular photography that oscillate between the personal and the public—amateur photography, studio portraiture, identity photographs, family ritual photography, student photographs of demonstrations, and photographs of charismatic political figures through which Strassler examines multiple and contradictory visions of national modernity. The book’s generous illustrations (127 photographs in color) delineate the power of the visual in mediating the nation and the national subjects while, at the same time, serving as a constant reminder of the elusive: the presence elsewhere that photographic frames could not contain.
Strassler’s rich and subtle work further contributes to the studies of nation and nationalism by unfolding the ironies and ambivalence in which diasporic subjects, in this case the ethnic Chinese, not only have played the role as “cosmopolitan brokers of the global capitalist modernity” (14) but also have shaped and disseminated ideas of nationhood. By giving prominence to the association between the history of photography in Indonesia and the ethnic Chinese who popularized photographic practices and ideas, Strassler emphasizes her argument on the entwining and the tension of “nation” and “modernity.” Photography and the ethnic Chinese are characterized with a “structural ambivalence” (13) that constitutes national modernity: they are both formative elements of nationhood and markers of foreignness. Visions of the nation here are not cohesive; they remain, in Strassler’s own word, “refracted.”
Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java (Durham and London: Duke University press, 2010). 375 pp. ISBN 9780822345930