- Photographic Subjects: Monarchy and Visual Culture in Colonial Indonesia by Susie Protschky
Most scholars of the late-colonial era in Indonesian history will be familiar with the peculiar omnipresence of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina (r. 1898–1948). Her name is forever associated with the announcement of the "Ethical Policy" in 1901, with spectacles organized in her honor, such as Batavia's (Jakarta) extravagant annual fair, and with political resistance, like Suwardi Suryaningrat's attempt to raise money with his infamous anticolonial pamphlet, "If I were a Dutchman," to petition Wilhelmina for greater political liberties. Even in the vernacular press, especially publications sponsored by the colonial authorities, her image was a common feature. For instance, the initial four issues of Bintang Hindia (Star of the Indies)—a richly illustrated biweekly periodical for the educated elite among the colonized—featured Wilhelmina, her husband, and her mother on its covers.1 Through these photographs of the queen, the readers of Bintang Hindia were introduced to their monarch in far-flung Europe. It is therefore surprising that the representation of Wilhelmina, and the Dutch monarchy in general, in colonial Indonesia has received scant attention from scholars. Susie Protschky's latest monograph, Photographic Subjects: Monarchy and Visual Culture in Colonial Indonesia, addresses this lacuna.
Photographic Subjects departs from the deceptively straightforward premise that while Queen Wilhelmina was physically absent, she was very much pictorially present in colonial Indonesia. None of the Dutch monarchs ever toured their empire in Asia prior to independence movements there. Among the reasons offered for ruling from afar were practical concerns over temporarily abandoning governance of The Netherlands as well as anxieties over the possible health and safety hazards that accompanied travel in the tropics. Protschky adds to this list an intriguing reason for the queen's absence, namely, the fear that her physical appearance would underwhelm the colonized who were used to pomp and splendor from their own rulers. It was in this particular context that the symbolic representation of a distant sublime sovereign, enabled by the advent of mass photography that coincided with Wilhelmina's reign, proved expedient. Photographs, according to Protschky, "emerged as the most ubiquitous proxy for [Wilhelmina's] absent self in the colonies" (12). In her book, Protschky explores the many ways in which people in the Indies—colonizer and colonized—engaged with these images of the queen, which at times helped to construct a transnational sense of community and belonging as well as reinforcing social and colonial hierarchies. In other words, photographs were an important vector in the communication of power—not only its exercise, but also its contestation. It is through a study of these photographs of the Dutch monarch that Protschky, in a highly original manner, adds to our understanding of the entanglement of Indonesian and Dutch histories. [End Page 125]
As the title of Protschky's book indicates, this is not a study about Queen Wilhelmina's, or the Dutch monarchy's, personal connection and interaction with colonial Indonesia. The focus instead is on how subjects—Dutch and Indonesian—in the colonial world engaged with the monarchy through photographs. Protschky therefore examines not only photos of the royals themselves, but primarily pictures of their subjects during royal celebrations in the colony. Through a careful examination of these fascinating images she illustrates how "positions of agency and subjecthood were articulated on these occasions through photography" (208). Protschky's arguments are supported by no fewer than sixty-three (!) photographs, which all hail from archival collections in The Netherlands. Two kinds of photographic sources stand out in this study. First, Protschky draws extensively on family albums, a source rarely used by scholars thus far. Second, she examines photographs preserved in the Royal Collections in The Hague that originally were gifts from Javanese Principalities to the Dutch monarchy as a means to assess how Javanese royalty positioned themselves in relationship to the Dutch monarch. Taken together, this is an invaluable contribution to the existing scholarship, consisting of the work of Karen Strassler and Protschky's earlier work on photography, modernity, and...