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Is There Such A Thing as Southeast Asian Photography?

Supartono, Alexander



The photography scene in Southeast Asia has developed regionally since the early days of the camera. The flourishing commercial photographic studios in the region (thanks to the success of colonial enterprises that provided sufficient clientele) witnessed photographers crisscrossing colonial boundaries to offer their service. Advertisement in The Strait Times Singapore on 3 January 1863 reads: “Walter Woodbury, Photographic Artist of Java (whose portraits are so well known throughout all the islands of the Archipelago, and whose views of Java created such a sensation in Europe) intends on his return to England to make a stay of a month in Singapore, where he hopes to arrive in January.” In the 1860s, Singapore was the base for the German Sachtler & Co. and G.R. Lambert & Co. photographic studios that documented the wider area of Southeast Asia and offered extensive inventories of “views and types” of the region. Singapore’s position as the region’s transit and trading centre provided a meeting place for photographers to meet and learn from each other works, businesses and experiences. This dynamic suggest a regional identity of Southeast Asian (colonial) photography and a shared convention in representing the region’s immense diversity, which could be identified and analysed collectively as part and parcel of the history of Southeast Asian photography.

This paper will examine, first, how the shared political, economic and social conditions of colonial relations produced common characteristics of visual conventions (as in landscape and studio portrait photography), subject matter (types and views, monuments and antiquity, industrial and family photographs) and even dictated the modus operandi of photographers working in colonial Southeast Asia (including Thailand). Secondly, it will explore how this photographic tradition might influence the region’s contemporary photographic practices? There was a considerably long absence of photographic activity in Southeast Asia that had a regional perspective following the collapse of Western photographers’ network at the end of WW II. It is only in the last two decades that the photography scene in Southeast Asia has started to reflect upon the region as a territorial unit, re-exploring the impact of geographical proximity and, arguably, the shared photographic traditions. This paper will focus on the work of contemporary Southeast Asian photographers that critically and creatively reflect upon the region’s shared photographic tradition and colonial history. It will analyse the way in which their works revisit narratives, iconographies and cultural stereotypes classed as colonial, as well as genres, such as vernacular or landscape photography that were not specifically included in previous readings of the ‘colonial archive’. This post-colonial reading of the material and practices may problematise anew the ideological premises of “colonial” photography, which would then be, I will argue, distinctively Southeast Asian in character.


Supartono, A. (2015, April). Is There Such A Thing as Southeast Asian Photography?. Paper presented at Making Southeast Asian Cultures: From Region to World, UC Berkeley, CA, USA

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name Making Southeast Asian Cultures: From Region to World
Start Date Apr 22, 2015
End Date Apr 23, 2016
Deposit Date Dec 5, 2016
Keywords contemporary photography, southeast asia, singapore art museum
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