- Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey by Wubin Zhuang
As an avid photographer, visual anthropologist, and long-time observer of Indonesia and Southeast Asia more generally, I awaited Zhuang Wubin's new book, Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey with considerable anticipation. There is no other book surveying photography in the region so broadly or so thoroughly. It is a much-needed reference, and I know a number of visual researchers who will welcome it with open arms.
As a reference, it does not disappoint. Through some twelve years of travel and numerous interviews with photographers, curators, and other researchers, Zhuang assembles an impressive, condensed guide to the history, themes, and notable practitioners of each country in Southeast Asia's photographic tradition. There are numerous illustrations, extensive citations of other academics' work on the subject, and most importantly, detailed descriptions of the photographic works of Southeast Asian photographers, as well as the intentions behind them. Researchers looking for a place to start their work on photography in the region will find no better one. It should, however, be understood as that: a starting point. This is not an exhaustive account. Nor is it a methodical critique, though it does provide some cultural analysis and provisional theoretical insights. It is a reference, pure and simple, and it reads as one. Its tone, as Zhuang writes, is "inevitably descriptive" (p. 9). I would not suggest reading it from start to finish (though I did). I would, however, suggest keeping it on the shelf for future reference. I will. [End Page 407]
Despite its utility as a reference, there are a couple of clear weaknesses of the book that bear mentioning. First, it does not cover every single region of every single country. Indonesianists, for instance, may find it problematic that Zhuang only traces the lineage of photographic practices on Java. There is no consideration of photography elsewhere in the vast archipelago nation, a move that mirrors the cultural domination of everyday life in Indonesia by the Javanese. But Zhuang himself acknowledges this limitation, and suggests this orientation is partly a function of Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta, the intellectual and artistic capitals of Indonesia, themselves dominating the discourse about photography. It would have been nice to see Zhuang challenge that hegemony here, but it leaves open the possibility of future researchers making substantial contributions of their own.
Second, some countries—Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore—get considerably more coverage than others—Brunei, Laos, Myanmar. This is not a problem unique to discussions of photography in the region. Southeast Asian Studies is arguably defined by its emphasis on particular countries over others. Indonesia is, after all, considerably bigger than Brunei. It has far more photographers. Nonetheless, one suspects researchers often contribute to this disparity in representation by looking where the lights are brightest and most concentrated.
Third, photography buffs are going to be disappointed by the way photographs are reproduced here. Most are quite small and difficult to see. Color photographs are in black and white. Many photographers' work is not visually represented at all, and others are left with gallery installation shots that give us only the barest sense of what their work is like. I am guessing this is a function of getting permission from copyright owners to reproduce the work. I understand that challenge well. I would also venture a guess that the publisher, National University of Singapore Press, was unwilling to spring for the color plates that would have lent this reference book coffee table book potential. It's too bad. It is a limitation I sorely felt, and I can well imagine that Zhuang feels it too. I [End Page 408] hope that NUS Press is willing to incur such costs for future publications. It is worth it. It enhances the fetish appeal of a book considerably. In the meantime, I would suggest reading the book with a web browser open.
These critiques, however, are minor. The strengths of the book outweigh the weaknesses. I particularly like that Zhuang seeks to flatten...