Asia. In the “West” when one first thinks of Asia, one thinks of the “mysterious ‘East”, with all its romance and exoticism, or a newspaper scan of the day’s crop of Conradian horrors: bus plunges, coups, terrorists, earthquakes, tsunamis, teaming masses, outsourcing, and the “tiger” economies. Beyond the clichés, however, lies another Asia or many Asias different and distinct from each other. This year the Dutch photography festival, Noorderlicht, took on those many Asias and their representation, both by Westerners and Asians.
For those who couldn’t make it to Leeuwarden where this year’s incarnation of the festival was held, there is a vastly informative catalogue with texts in English and Dutch, produced by festival director Wim Melis and the Jakarta, Indonesia, based independent curator Alex Supartono. The geographic range of the work moves from India through Indonesia and South-East Asia to The Philippines. (It does not include China, Korea and Japan).The exhibitions and catalogue are grouped into three themes: Through Western Eyes, featuring Western photographers with long experience in the region; A Look to the Past, including work from local and international archives; Through Asian Eyes, with portfolios by photographers from the 21 countries included in the show.
Naturally, such an omnium-gatherum with some 60 photographers is somewhat uneven, yet the material is fascinating. This review looks at the documentary component of the festival at the expense of the equally valid artistic side. Works by Wahyudi Rahardjo (Indonesia), Anay Mann (India), Sudharak Olwe (India), and Farhana Syeda (Bangladesh), examine the radical changes in societies affected by economic and social change that is radically reshaping the landscape. Images by Tri Huu Luu (Vietnam) and Alex Supartono, Paul Kadarisman, Muhammed Revaldi and Arief Kamaruddin Rahman (Indonesia) address issues of religion, whether in the case of the former, the position of Buddhism in modern Vietnam or, in the case of the latter, the roles Islam plays in contemporary Indonesian society. Swan Ti Ng (Indonesia) documents Christian worshippers in the world’s most populous Muslim land, Indonesia. Other works touch on the situation of widows in India and examine female stereotypes in Bollywood cinema.
Not surprisingly, imagery from the colonial and recent past plays a major role in the ways by which Westerners identified and controlled Asians and the ways by which Asians have learned to represent themselves to each other and to the West. For example, a portfolio by Edward Fitzgerald Charlesworth (Great Britain), a soldier sent to India during the First World War, documents aspects of North India, its cities, landscapes and peoples. Identification images of workers from the Sinkep Tin Company of what later became Indonesia were collected in 1919 by the then Colonial Museum in Amsterdam (now known as the Tropen Museum) are dignified studio portraits that resemble work by Martin Chambi, for example.
They honour their subject’s humanity yet do not include reference to name and position. A more aggressive stance to ethnographic photography is taken by Pushpamala N (India) who recreates classic anthropometric photographs using herself and various “measuring devices” such as rulers and calipers for measuring and classifying racial characteristics of “natives”. Other works are culled from photography studios old and new across the region. Work by the famous Philippine photographer Eduardo Masferré depicts tribal cultures of remote parts of the Philippine Archipelago in the period before the Second World War in a wholly humanist documentary style. Imagery from the North Vietnamese Army press photographer Mai Nam covered everyday life behind the front lines and sometimes rare battle scenes during the America war in Vietnam. It is a body of work only recently coming to light in the West and all but unknown outside of Vietnam that tells a different version of the story better known through the images of Capa, Burrows, et al.
This brief reprise is only a sample of the range of imagery coming out of Asia. Now with more and more people taking pictures with everything from cell phones to Leicas, the nature of representation will be constantly in flux. As societies change so too do the means used to depict them. Now, at least, the power of the image and the control over the distribution of images finally allows non-Western actors to represent themselves on a more equal footing and so present views of another Asia than the standard view.