Interviews

An Artist’s Comprehensive History of Southeast Asian Photography

Zhuang Wubin provides a solid framework for critically exploring the region’s varied histories and notable practitioners of an oft-unsung medium.

Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey (all images courtesy of Zhuang Wubin)

I was first introduced to writer and photographer Zhuang Wubin’s work when I moved to Cambodia. His writings on Cambodian photography are well-researched, accessible, and thoughtful — exactly what I was seeking as a newcomer to the area. Zhuang became an important node for me to learn from and think through photography in Cambodia, and later the region as a whole. I didn’t know it then, but it came as no surprise to learn that Zhuang was working on a book: Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey, which was published in late 2016 by National University of Singapore Press.

The book is the first serious attempt to comprehensively document the history of photography in the region. Just as the first article I read by Zhuang helped introduce me to Cambodian photography, his book provides a solid framework, built on years of research, conversations, and meetings, to begin to critically explore the region’s varied histories and notable practitioners around an oft-unsung medium. For those interested in exploring the history of the practice outside of the West or looking at art history within the Southeast Asian region, this book is invaluable.

To get a better grasp of the book’s scope and Zhuang’s work in general, I spoke with him over email.

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Photograph of the book’s author at the Institute Technology of Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, courtesy of Gyaista Sampurno.

Ben Valentine: What compelled you to spend 10 years researching photography in Southeast Asia? Did you always know it would result in a book?

Zhuang Wubin: It started in an organic fashion. I never thought it would be a book. Initially, it was largely driven by my curiosity to better understand the development of photographic practices in Southeast Asia. I knew it would be a useful project to pursue, but I did not dare imagine it to be a book. To publish a book depends on many factors beyond my control. Luckily, in 2010, I received a grant from Prince Claus Fund to allow me to begin my literature review. That was when I realized the book might become a possibility

BV: Let’s talk about how you approach the issue in terms of a region and nations. Firstly, the book focuses on the context of Southeast Asia, which is then organized by country. This is extremely practical and useful, but it could also be misleading. What compelled you to represent Southeast Asian photography as a coherent subject, and then to organize by country?

ZW: You are right. It is not easy to speak of Southeast Asian photography as a unary subject matter. Photography is a malleable medium that can be mobilized by different practices, including the visual arts, religion, activism, journalism, etc. The structure of country chapters provides an easy way to organize the book, which I think is relevant, given that this is one of the few attempts to map the development of photographic practices across the region. I often get questions from practitioners in the region who wish to know more about the history (and current state) of photography in their place of birth. This suggests that there is still demand for such information. Of course, I am conscious of the limitations of taking a nation-centric approach, which is not the same as organizing the book through country chapters.

The nation-centric approach remains blind to the circulation of materials, visuals, ideas, and technologies beyond national boundaries that informs the creating of photographs. This approach also compels us to make proclamations about, for instance, the uniqueness of Cambodian photography. This is not to say that the photographic productions in Cambodia are not affected by localized conditions. However, documentary photographers in Phnom Penh today can easily go online and reference the visual styles of practitioners whom they admire from any part of the world. This poses problems if we operate strictly through a nation-centric framing.

The opening of the Cambodia chapter, featuring Vandy Rattana’s work from the series “Walking Through” (2008–09).

BV: When discussing regional trends, you mentioned to me a consistent looking Westward by photographers. Why do you think that is?

ZW: In a way, this is inevitable due to the issue of access. For decades, it was easier to find books on the histories of art and photography from the West. Print capitalism in the West ensured that knowledge was packaged into books efficiently. There were of course books concerning Chinese art, but they were only accessible to people [in Southeast Asia] who read Chinese. More recently, the internet has become an important resource for practitioners in Southeast Asia. The story of emerging photographers from Southeast Asia going online to study the works of practitioners from Magnum Photo, for instance, is a fairly common one. In the virtual world, as is the case for publications concerning art and photography, materials from the West remain better packaged and easily available. The issue of language means that it is also harder for practitioners in Southeast Asia to understand the experiences of Japanese or Chinese practitioners. They often have to do so through English translation, unless they can read Japanese or Chinese. Similarly, it is not easy for a Vietnamese practitioner to learn about the experiences of her/his peer in Thailand without the mediation of English. In these instances, it is inevitable for people to look Westward.

Michael Shaowanasai, “Portrait of a Man in Habits” (2000), C-print, 56 x 36 in

The situation is changing rapidly, with increased opportunities to learn and collaborate between practitioners from different parts of Asia. There are now more publications and online materials [made available in English] representing art and photographic practices from different parts of Asia. Perhaps this may help stem the tide. In short, while there may be a desire to look Westward, this does not mean that practitioners here are not interested in what is happening within the region or even their place of origin. There is discernible desire among Indonesian photographers, for instance, to learn more about the history and development of photography within Indonesia. For some “progressive” curators and academics, this genuine desire [to know and learn] will be dismissed as “nationalistic.”

I think the crux of the issue is that our standards of comparison, our measures of success, and our knowledge productions are still largely structured by the West. It seems that it is easier to celebrate an Asian photographer [who has been] recognized by Magnum or World Press Photo than a Philippine photographer working for decades in the Cordilleras, receiving little validation by the West. In some cases, cultural workers working in Southeast Asia look at the region as a place for them to sell their products (workshops, curatorial expertise). We should also be realistic, to realize that there are some curators and art historians working in Southeast Asia with career ambitions that go beyond the region. For them, working in Southeast Asia means mining the region for materials that can be analyzed and published in journals in the United States or Europe, hence advancing their academic careers while inevitably consolidating the universal importance of Western theories. Even for well-meaning academics who wish to unpack the Euro-American influence on knowledge production in the region, some of them remain reluctant to utilize the works of researchers from the region to structure their future research. Instead, they still incline towards Lacan, Foucault, and Benjamin, among others. This is not to dismiss the important contribution of these thinkers. However, at some point, we need to have the courage to move on.

Alex Baluyut, “Communist Rebels, 1983,” from the series Kasama: A Collection of Photographs of the New People’s Army of the Philippines (1980–86).

BV: Let’s talk about the difficulties and resistance you found for considering photography as an artistic medium.

ZW: To be polemical, I would say that all photography can be reimagined as art. But such a claim will not convince even the photographers themselves, who clearly believe that some forms of photography are not art. At the same time, the most poignant practices of photography can exist in the vernacular, like how, on social media, Bersih participants would post photographs of themselves joining rallies and gatherings worldwide, marking their presence in the politics of asking for transparency from the Malaysian government. I also notice how some practitioners are using photography to work with the less privileged and the vulnerable in order to rebuild their self-esteem.

Of course, the digital world (and the increased importance of social media) presents additional challenges to galleries and museums. It is blatantly clear that there are a lot of people (who do not earn a living from photography) in Southeast Asia interested in different kinds of photographic practices. They include bankers, bureaucrats, domestic workers, engineers, cleaners, etc. They are both consumers and practitioners of photographic images, photographic art. To an extent, the online environment has already allowed these people to valorize the varying kinds of photographic art [that they follow], which may or may not remain absent from galleries and museums. But if the public finds these sites unwilling to deliver what they believe should be celebrated as photographic art, I suspect they will reject them further and render these places irrelevant and elitist.

Emily Phyo, “Being 365” (2016), installation view, photo taken by the author at Art Stage, Singapore, 2017.

BV: I’ve long been especially interested in networked media as art. A great (and rare) regional example of this is from Burmese artist Emily Phyo’s “Being 365” (2016), in which she took and posted a photograph on social media every day for a year. Phyo both obscured and also quantified her subjects’ identities by wrapping a measuring tape over their eyes to reveal their age but block their face. How has social media’s arrival to the region changed photography?

ZW: The arrival of social media is part of the digitization of photography. It is helping photography belatedly fulfill its initial promise of egalitarianism because any individual today can be a content producer of photographic images. Now, s/he has the means to reach her/his viewers digitally, in a low-cost way. The power of different gatekeepers is slowly being eroded, though they remain hugely relevant today since they can still enact censorship or control access to elitist art institutions.

Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey is now available from National University of Singapore Press.

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