Karen Strassler on her new book, Demanding Images

Demanding Images


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: Your book is about the image-event, and I am wondering if you could explain what an image-event is, and how you decided which moments in Indonesia to focus on as ethnographic examples of image-events.  You are quite imaginative in how you choose objects of study, and I was hoping you could discuss the process by which you decide what to explore under the rubric of the image-event.

Karen Strassler: An image-event is a political process set in motion when an image (or set of images) becomes a focal point of affective response and discursive engagement across diverse publics. Foregrounding the centrality of visuality in contemporary public spheres, in Demanding Images I trace a series of image-events in which particular images become the material ground of struggles over competing visions of the nation in a turbulent time of political transition. I argue that in Indonesia, and elsewhere, today all politics has become image politics.

Underlying the term “image-event” is the premise that all images are events in the sense that they unfold in time and across space. Against the habit of thinking of images as fixed appearances at a remove from the flow of events, tuning into the eventfulness of images is a way to think about historical contingency and the dynamic, emergent quality of images as they move, mutate, and proliferate. Rather than conceptualizing an event as a clearly bounded temporal unit, I am interested in how images resonate and reverberate, in their ripple effects. This approach recognizes the volatility of images, their tendency to spawn new iterations, their unruly mutability.

Public images are elusive objects for the ethnographer. Traditional anthropological methods teach us to try to determine the “meaning” of an image through a deep engagement with its “context.” This “thick description” of the image usually entails tying images to specific actors and institutions that produce or consume them. But public images don’t play by these rules. They circulate in viral forms without authors and unanchored to particular sites and institutions. In a Bakhtinian sense, they are always alien and overpopulated with the intentions of others, they never belong to anyone except in the most provisional and temporary of ways. By following the image-event, we can see how images are taken up, how they are reworked, how they elicit speech and action, and how they coalesce a set of anxieties, aspirations, tensions, and dreams that otherwise remain inchoate. We can watch how they happen and track their effects.

My process for selecting image-events to analyze was really no different, I think, from what anthropologists typically do as we select from among the many occurrences that we encounter during research, homing in on those that provide analytic purchase, those that promise an opening to a set of questions or problems, relations or dynamics, that we’ve identified as important. Image-events don’t only reveal what’s already there but—like any event we observe ethnographically—allow us to see the process by which tensions, imaginings, and alignments, take form in real time. My choices of which image-events to focus on were of course shaped by my own (necessarily partial) sense of what was happening in Indonesia in the first decade and a half after the end of an authoritarian regime. Inevitably—and again, as with all ethnography—there’s an element of happenstance. For example, I happened to be in Yogyakarta during the months around the extra judicial killings I describe in chapter 5, and watching that image-event allowed me to think about the street as a medium. I chose image-events that, it seemed to me, crystallized and helped bring into view certain key tensions constituting the post-authoritarian public sphere, both shaping and unsettling democratic imaginaries in Indonesia.

Ilana Gershon: How have Indonesians’ relationships to photographs, and images in general, changed since your first round of research on photographs in Indonesia in 1998-1999?   What has been the effect of having such widespread access to technology that lets people not only to take photographs but also alter them?

Karen Strassler: Indonesia is a great place to look at the intimate relationship between politics and media forms. In a recent book on monarchy and empire in the Dutch East Indies, Susie Protschky has examined the role of portraits of the Queen and other images in securing the authority of the Dutch crown in its imperial outposts (Protschky 2019). Before Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer tied the growth of nationalist sentiment in the early twentieth century to the rise of the newspaper, journalism, and the mechanically reproduced image. Nationalist leader Sukarno’s political charisma, meanwhile, was enhanced and extended by aural means, as his resonant voice circulated via the radio during the Japanese Occupation on the cusp of Independence. Television and, as Joshua Barker has argued (2005), communications satellites were crucial to the consolidation of state power, the image of national unity, and the developmentalist ideology of the New Order regime. I do not mean to suggest that there is a mechanical or deterministic relationship between media technologies and political eras. But this book can be seen as part of a long engagement on the part of many scholars thinking the history of Indonesian politics in relation to histories of mediation and communication. My first research in 1998 took place on the cusp of the digital era, in which popular photography was emerging as a critical form of political engagement for university students active in the reform movement. Demanding Images really tries to work through the implications of a greatly expanded capacity to manipulate and circulate images on the part of ordinary people that ensued in subsequent years as new technologies opened up new forms of practice that became hitched to both the aspirations and the anxieties of democracy. One argument I make is that engaging actively with images—as producers, brokers, and experts—has become a practice of citizenship within a messy public arena that is more participatory and inclusive, but also more fractured, than ever before.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that how people used to view photographs as authentic shapes current ludic uses, that people’s earlier semiotic ideologies set the stage for today’s practices.  What is distinctively Indonesian about contemporary ludic image-events?

Karen Strassler: Indonesia is an extremely heterogeneous place and I don’t think there is any single or distinctively “Indonesian” way of approaching images. In Java, which is the part of Indonesia I know best, we could talk about a certain delight in artifice and a sense of surfaces as sites of play and allusion as one longstanding aesthetic and semiotic ideology (analyzed perhaps most compellingly by James T. Siegel [1986]).  This aesthetic has perhaps been given a new arena for expression in the possibilities that digital media offer for playful engagement with images and words. I have also written about the significance of a political ontology that assumes that unseen spiritual forces are always at work and can be conveyed through the mediation of images (Strassler 2014).

Given these sensibilities, perhaps what is surprising is how strong the investment in the promise of photographic transparency was—at least for many participants in public discourse—during the 1998 “reformasi” movement and its aftermath. I argue that in that moment, and prevailing in the public sphere that emerged after the collapse of the authoritarian regime, hopes for democracy—for justice, truth-telling, and accountability for violence, for an end to economic and political corruption, for genuine political participation—became hitched to photographic technology. The photograph became a fetish of the democratic ideal of transparency.

Once tied to the fate of democracy, however, the photograph was then subject to the doubts and disappointments that came as Indonesian democracy failed to deliver on its promise. Rather than the realization of democratic ideals, the photograph came instead to signal uncertain credibility and authorship, inauthenticity and manipulated appearances, and the uncontrolled circulation of rumor.

But the flipside of this disenchantment with photographic transparency and anxiety about manipulation is a more playful or “ludic” mode of image-making and reception. Ludic images make their claims by artfully manipulating appearances. They compete for authority and authenticity with the “transparent” evidentiary image, rejecting the latter’s ideology of transparency and referential truth in favor of truths that become visible, via overt artifice, on the surface of the image. This delight in ludic images may be inflected by Indonesia’s particular histories and aesthetic sensibilities, but it is also a global phenomenon.

From the late 19th century the journalistic documentary image enjoyed a privileged place in mediating public visuality. With its evidentiary claims rooted in photographic indexicality, the journalistic image enjoyed hegemonic status as the privileged medium of visual truth-telling. It was never completely secure in this status, of course. There have always been competing image forms, practices, and ideologies. And, as Zeynep Gürsel has shown in Image Brokers (2016), moreover, digital technology has radically transformed the ways that journalistic images are produced, brokered, and circulated today. So I don’t mean to imply that the journalistic image is a static object or that it is rooted in a prior moment.

Nevertheless, we have only to look at the rise of the meme to see how embattled the evidentiary image is today, and how prominent more ludic modes of image-making have become in the public sphere. These images make claims in a very different, and often more compelling, register. While the journalistic image seeks to disappear in the immediacy of its revelations, or relies on the authority of the photographer as heroic eye-witness, the ludic image calls attention to itself as image, inviting people to engage, comment on, and rework its surface. Its authority derives from its currency—its circulation—and not from reference to a pre-photographic truth or an authorizing eye. I do not agree with the facile statement that we live in an era in which the truth of the image no longer matters, nor did skepticism about the photograph’s truth claims begin with the advent of digital technology. But I do think we are in the midst of a new struggle not only over truth itself but over the question of by what means might truths be rendered visible and durable.

Ilana Gershon: How are elections and democratic publics in general affected by the ways image-events take place in Indonesia today?  

Karen Strassler: In the final chapter of the book, I write about the 2014 Indonesian presidential election, and describe the acts of scrutiny by which partisans analyzed images and made claims of manipulation in order to undercut the appearance of support for opposing candidates. One such incident involved debates about whether images of a crowd at a political rally had been digitally altered to make the crowd appear bigger.

It has been both affirming of my analysis and deeply disconcerting to see some of the dynamics that I started observing in Indonesian politics echo here in the US (and elsewhere) in recent years. I substantially finished the text of Demanding Images in 2016, before Trump’s election. In the years since then, the term “fake news” has become commonplace just as accusations of “hoax” were in Indonsia several years earlier. In the US as in Indonesia (and elsewhere) we see a proliferation of political commentary circulating on social media that combines scrutiny of images, humorous memes, and “selfie” or highly personalized statements of political allegiance and citizenship claims.

In Indonesia and in much of the world, being part of a democratic public is no longer a matter of consuming news images provided by state or commercial mass media, but a matter of producing, circulating, scrutinizing, and commenting on public images. I don’t think it’s helpful to either condemn or celebrate this fact, as the political effects of such modes of citizenship are not given in advance.

Ilana Gershon:  You have a poignant chapter on the consequences of protesting a crime that can’t be photographed, such as rape, in an age in which the recorded image functions all too often as evidence.   What makes rape in particular a crime that reveals the intricate logics about evidence at play for Indonesians?

Karen Strassler: The chapter is about the ideology of transparency, its demand for photographic revelations, and the limits that this demand imposes on the political visibility of certain kinds of violence. Allegations that rapes had occurred during “rioting” against the ethnic Chinese community in Jakarta and a few other cities in May 1998, gave rise to a public debate—which consumed the newly free press from June to around January of 1999—that fixated on the question of “proof.” (I put “rioting” in quotes because there is strong evidence that the violence was not spontaneous and popular, but orchestrated by factions of the military). I argue that this debate was an early harbinger of the failures of what I call the “dream of transparency” that had animated the reformasi movement. Because of the sexualized, gendered nature of the violence and the precarious status of the victims as members of a transnational ethnic minority, none of the rape victims were willing to come forward to attest publicly to their experiences. In a moment in which the photograph had become the currency of political recognition—and in which spectacular scenes of male-on-male violence were celebrated as revelatory “witnesses”—the failure of the rapes to make themselves photographically visible placed them irredeemably in the ambiguous space of rumor. The victims’ refusal to circulate photographically denied them political and public recognition. What is particularly sad and telling is that even twenty years later, the rapes remain shrouded in uncertainty as to their numbers, the agencies responsible for them, and even—for many—whether or not they occurred at all.

Ilana Gershon:  How were ethnic Chinese historically connected to how photography became commonplace in Indonesia, and is there a distinctive relationship between ethnic Chinese and photography today?

Karen Strassler: As my first book (Refracted Visions, 2010) details, ethnic Chinese were pioneers of photography in the late colonial Indies and in the first decades of postcolonial Indonesia. Some—mostly recent immigrants from Canton—worked as studio photographers and others—typically wealthier and more established Chinese—played as photographic hobbyists, members of amateur clubs. Ethnic Chinese were also at the vanguard of emerging bureaucratic regimes of visibility, including the use of identity photographs. And they tended to incorporate photography into daily life and familial rituals—including funerals—earlier than other Indonesians. Although the Chinese-Indonesian community in Indonesia is diverse, in general this relationship to photography had to do with their transnational orientations, their class status and involvement in commerce and capitalist economies, and their tendency to live in urban places.

It is still true that most studios are Chinese-Indonesian owned and that Chinese-Indonesians are strongly represented among the most prominent professional and amateur photographers in Indonesia. Chinese-Indonesian-owned companies still largely control the photography equipment and supplies industry. But today, the tight association of “Chinese” and photography has loosened. The so-called “democratization” of photography, which began with the arrival of automatic color processing and cheap automatic cameras, has advanced rapidly with digital photography and cell phones.

I would suggest, though, that Chinese-Indonesians have a particular relationship to visibility that has to do not only with these photographic histories, but also with histories of racial politics: of the semiotics of reading “Chineseness” (practiced by the state and by ordinary people in everyday life) and oscillations that render Chineseness sometimes a hidden secret and sometimes hypervisible scandal. So I remain very interested in the relationship of Chinese-Indonesians to visibility broadly, and this is something I hope to do more research on in the future. I want to look at how “Chineseness” has been figured visually, at what kinds of visibility and invisibility are accorded to Chinese-Indonesians, and at how Chinese-Indonesians themselves manage appearances and seek to intervene in their own emplacement within a visual field.

As Mainland Chinese investment rises in Indonesia, the politics of Chineseness within the country are also shifting. Learning Mandarin, which was outlawed for thirty years by the New Order regime, has now become a favored investment among those upwardly mobile parents who just a few years ago would have had their children learning English. At the same time, anxiety about growing Chinese economic influence is reinforcing longstanding associations of the local Chinese with predatory forms of capitalism and threats to national sovereignty. So I continue to want to think through the broader, historically shifting relationship between Chineseness, images, and visuality in Indonesia.

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