Refracted Visions

Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java

Refracted Visions


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Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 127 photographs, incl. 32 in color Published: April 2010

Author: Karen Strassler

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Asian Studies > Southeast Asia

A young couple poses before a painted backdrop depicting a modern building set in a volcanic landscape; a college student grabs his camera as he heads to a political demonstration; a man poses stiffly for his identity photograph; amateur photographers look for picturesque images in a rural village; an old woman leafs through a family album. In Refracted Visions, Karen Strassler argues that popular photographic practices such as these have played a crucial role in the making of modern national subjects in postcolonial Java. Contending that photographic genres cultivate distinctive ways of seeing and positioning oneself and others within the affective, ideological, and temporal location of Indonesia, she examines genres ranging from state identification photos to pictures documenting family rituals.
Oriented to projects of selfhood, memory, and social affiliation, popular photographs recast national iconographies in an intimate register. They convey the longings of Indonesian national modernity: nostalgia for rural idylls and “tradition,” desires for the trappings of modernity and affluence, dreams of historical agency, and hopes for political authenticity. Yet photography also brings people into contact with ideas and images that transcend and at times undermine a strictly national frame. Photography’s primary practitioners in the postcolonial era have been Chinese Indonesians. Acting as cultural brokers who translate global and colonial imageries into national idioms, these members of a transnational minority have helped shape the visual contours of Indonesian belonging even as their own place within the nation remains tenuous. Refracted Visions illuminates the ways that everyday photographic practices generate visual habits that in turn give rise to political subjects and communities.


Refracted Visions is a substantial and well-researched study of contemporary popular photography in Indonesia, a result of anthropologist Karen Strassler’s extensive fieldwork in Java since the mid-1990s. . . . This rich and provocative study offers a thorough understanding of the changing role of photography in Javanese society at the popular level. . . .” — Iftikhar Dadi, CAA Reviews

“An original and finely crafted book . . . . Besides Refracted Visions’ many compelling arguments, including the one that lays out the centrality of Chinese-Indonesians to the historical process of imagining Indonesia, Strassler expresses herself in clear, nuanced language that combines subtle analysis with vivid description and an acute eye for historically situated, ethnographic detail.” — Patricia Spyer, International Journal of Asian Studies

“[Strassler] is in the text, recording snatches of conversations, often giving an
informant’s particular choice of words in Indonesian to convey the nuance and the moment. Woven around all this are reflections on the modern Indonesian nation, the relationship of individual to the state, and how visual records reflect, perpetuate or subvert official discourse. Thanks to a subvention from the Getty Foundation, the book is lavishly illustrated, so readers can see for themselves the photographs so thoughtfully analysed.” — Jean Gelman Taylor, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

“[This] book is an important contribution to the anthropology of photography, and a special contribution to the understanding of modern Indonesian society.” — Heddy Shri AHIMSA-PUTRA, Asian Anthropology

“As an ethnography of popular culture, art history, and social history, the book is rare, even unique in the field of Indonesian studies. . . . Refracted Visions satisfies a gap in the literature of Asian art history and technological studies by charting the slow and formative impact of photography as a distinct enframing device for Indonesian identity.” — Doreen Lee, Indonesia

“As this short review of Refracted Visions indicates, this highly readable and carefully produced volume, which received the 2011 Gregory Bateson book prize of the AAA’s Society for Cultural Anthropology, will arouse the interest of Indonesianists of various disciplinary backgrounds, as well as anthropologists working in Southeast Asia (and beyond) and the broader readership concerned with visual cultures.” — Martin Slama, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“Strassler’s often brilliant effort to forge a discourse appropriate to the complexities of her subject points to what is ultimately at stake in all national histories: the demarcation of identity in general.” — Geoffrey Batchen, Art Bulletin

“This intriguing and sophisticated book addresses the complex interface of popular photographic practices, history, politics, and identity in Java. . . . The
six genres of popular photography are also marvellously illustrated with 127 photographs, mostly in colour. Duke University Press is to be congratulated on combining extremely high production values with the swift publication of a low-priced paperback. This will help to ensure that this ethnography of popular photography will influence future analyses of visual and expressive cultures in Indonesia and elsewhere.” — Felicia Hughes-Freeland, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“. . . [N]ot 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.” — Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn, Inside Indonesia

Refracted Visions is an innovative and inspiring book because it demonstrates eloquently how people in urban Java started to participate
in national modernity through photography. . . . [T]his highly original and well written book, with no fewer than 127 telling illustrations, is a landmark in the anthropology of visuality. . . . Refracted Visions is, in my view, a strong candidate to win prestigious academic prizes.” — Henk Schulte Nordholt, Asian Studies Review

“In conclusion, the main contribution of Refracted Visions lies in its conceptualization of popular photographs as exceeding the private domain and engaging with collective aspirations and affiliations in ways that both support and subvert them. This point should be taken as a caution against the common display of photographs of late colonial and early postcolonial Asia to evoke nostalgia for a depoliticized, aestheticized past that never was.”
— Maurizio Peleggi, Pacific Affairs

Refracted Visions is a tour de force. Karen Strassler has a sophisticated grasp of contemporary theories of representation in both anthropology and photography studies, a deep and carefully attentive ethnographic eye, and a refined aesthetic sensibility. She limns the boundary between new historicist cultural studies and old fashioned anthropology with uncommon grace.” — Rosalind C. Morris, editor of Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia

Refracted Visions is a genuinely marvelous work which merits reading and rereading.” — John Pemberton, author of On the Subject of “Java”

“Refracted Visions is a truly brilliant piece of work, beautifully written and characterized by a profound learning and engagement with Indonesian ethnography and a range of debates around visuality and representation. It will be hailed as a classic.” — Christopher Pinney, author of The Coming of Photography in India


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Karen Strassler is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xvii

Note on Orthography and Psedudonyms xxi

Introduction: Popular Photography and Indonesian National Modernity 1

1. Amateur Visions 29

2. Landscapes of the Imagination 73

3. Identifying Citizens 123

4. Family Documentation 165

5. Witnessing History 207

6. Revelatory Signs 251

Epilogue: Beyond the Paper Trace 295

Notes 301

Bibliography 345

Index 363
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Winner, 2011 Gregory Bateson Prize (presented by the Society for Cultural Anthropology)

Winner, 2012 Harry J. Benda Prize from the Southeast Asia Council

Winner, 2013 John Collier Jr. Award for Still Photography (presented by the Society for Visual Anthropology)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4611-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4593-0
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