Dreaming in Light Leaks: Reflections on a Quasi Experimental Research and Mentoring Programme with Underprivileged Teenagers in Lengkok Bahru, Singapore (2016)

By Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer and Sim Jui Liang

[Editor’s note: Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer is a sociologist with an interest in race, religion, public policy and migration. Sim Jui Liang is a Research Associate (Special Project) at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.]

Nuh_Lengkok Bahru

Article Summary

In 2014, a group of friends started mentoring nine underprivileged teenagers who lived in public rental housing in Singapore. We started by introducing them to the basics of photography. The idea was for these teenagers to capture what they felt were important elements in their neighbourhood of Lengkok Bahru and their lives, rather than having us capture what we imagined to be representative of life in a public rental neighbourhood. We distributed film cameras to the teenagers and deliberately gave them ambiguous, open themes that they were supposed to creatively interpret and capture on film. They were: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. Five months in, we collected over 400 photos, some of which were eventually used in two public exhibitions at SCAPE, a non-profit youth organisation, and Artistry Café in 2015. In the text below, we reflect on the issue of representation in structuring photography programmes for underprivileged groups as well as the politics which undergirds the curation of a photography exhibition.

Inequality, Representation and Photography

Photographic representations do not just shape people’s perceptions of a subject but also affect the subject too. For instance, photographers’ expectations of poverty often lead them to ‘force the frame’, pushing photographic subjects to behave or appear in accordance to pre-conceived notions of what poverty entails. But some of these ‘subjects’ contest such framings of despair, even negotiating for greater involvement in representing themselves in photographs. Some photographers have in fact collaborated with them.

The very idea of incorporating photography into our quasi academic inquiry of class inequality was inspired by this turn in photography to include the ‘subjects’ as participants in the process of constructing the narrative. The main idea was to upend the inherent unequal dynamics in the practice of photography and to grant agency to the human constituents of photographic images. To that end, rather than capturing subjects in their ‘natural’ environment or constructing a narrative to represent them, the photographer facilitates the shaping of how they wish to be presented to the public either through co-organising an exhibition or giving them cameras to take their own photos, which was something we did for this project.

In this sense, we appear to be ignoring the photographers’ right to project their own interpretations of what they feel to be relevant in their artistic field. In fact, some would argue that this very process of interpreting and creating a narrative is what defines photography as a craft. It is indeed a valid concern. However, we feel that the whole poverty angle has been grossly overplayed, even fetishised to a point where such images do a disservice to not just the people they’re supposed to represent but also to the discourse on inequality. We view the shift in how photography is being practised – especially when dealing with vulnerable subjects – as an important step in quelling the expropriation of photographic narratives which, more often than not, lead to crass poverty porn. Ultimately, we feel that the answer to the question ‘who stands to gain from the production of images?’ should somehow address the issues raised by our young collaborators from Lengkok Bahru and by this, we don’t just mean parroting the clichéd ‘raising awareness’ argument. Beyond that, we believe that the programme should at least instill confidence in the participants and hopefully link them with opportunities brought about by their participation.

Going Old School with Film

Going in, we had to decide what the programme participants would be using to take the photographs. For a start, we didn’t even pretend to be experts in photography. Sure, we knew the technical basics of DSLR photography – ISO, aperture size, shutter speed. After a 10-minute tutorial on YouTube, we knew the basics of photo composition. But we didn’t want the technical aspects of photography to overwhelm the young participants and displace the storytelling aspect. One of us had the idea of using vintage point-and-shoot film cameras. They could be had for cheap and were pretty easy to use. The only difficult part was refilling batteries and of course, the film. Apart from introducing them to vintage photography equipment, we also thought that it would be interesting to expose the participants to the non-immediate dimension of film photography; sans the ability to review and edit the photographs, we hoped to be able to elicit the rawness of youth in the captured images and deliver a more impactful narrative. The lack of review capability and limited exposures (24 per film roll) however would force the participants to put in more thought in the composition of frames to be captured.


We felt compelled to highlight the extent of inequality in Singapore. But we didn’t feel that presenting heart-tugging images of hardship would be the most effective way of doing so. Inequality is an extremely complex issue and what is often lost in the discussion are the voices of the very people who live it. Letting the youth participants dictate what they wished to capture was one way of empowering them to highlight the ordinariness of life in public rental housing. At the same time, we wanted the audience to be able to identify the nuances in the photographs, to consume the images not just as representations of something alien (which often lead to the fetishisation of the poor) but also as symbols in a life world which, while constraining by normative standards, form part of the everyday routine for these individuals. Focusing on the life world of the programme participants was one way in which the seemingly polarising objectives of empowerment and the presentation of inequality could be achieved. We assigned them four interrelated themes to work with: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. The process was as interesting as the photos that the youth participants took. Every week, we gave them a new roll of film and we collected the spent film roll for processing. We repeated this for about five cycles. Because it was the first time they actually used film cameras, the first few cycles yielded poor photos. Some of the exposures were totally unusable because the curious teenagers had tinkered with the cameras, leading to overexposed photos. Eventually, they learned to maintain the cameras well and produced great photos over the span of four months.

Organising, Interpreting, Curating the Exhibition

Essentially, curating an exhibition requires the act of interpreting ‘data’ in the form of images and presenting them in a way that relays an idea or message. As such, curators can be said to inhabit a position of authority vis-a-vis the audience and in this case, the producers of the images. Although we started out with the intention of including the Lengkok Bahru teenagers in the selection of their photographs, we were constrained by prohibitive deadlines. There just wasn’t enough time to train them in the basic qualitative method of identifying and surfacing (inter-connected) themes from the myriad of photographs. Naturally, the task fell to us as facilitators in the programme. As we went through the hundreds of images appearing on the projector screen, some questions were raised: How do we avoid over-interpreting the significance of some of the images? How do we move away from transposing our preconceived notions or even ideals in these photos? Does the photo of a goldsmith shop front reflect the participants’ sensitivity towards their low socioeconomic status and/or their aspiration towards material wealth? Is the image of a milk carton in the fridge supposed to inform viewers of the photographer’s awareness of nutrition?

10015209_Food in the fridge

Our immediate response to this problem was to return to Lengkok Bahru to talk to the teenagers. It wasn’t that we hadn’t spent enough time in Lengkok Bahru. We were there quite frequently. But we realised that we were so absorbed in the execution of the programme that we missed getting to know some of these participants and more importantly, how the photographs connected with their lives. Fully aware that some of these teenagers were reticent, we probed them gently to uncover their motivations for taking certain photographs. We learned more about their lives, daily routines in the neighbourhood and, most importantly, their dreams. Through this approach of triangulating data, we felt that we managed to bridge the interpretive gap and better represent the images and the biographies behind these images. Eventually, we arrived at three overarching themes for the exhibition: 1) Lengkok Bahru, our Home, 2) Strategies and 3) Aspirations.


The theme of ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ is rather self-explanatory with the participants focusing on the physical landscape of their neighbourhood, such as the façades of the housing blocks that they stay in and the stairwells. Some participants also invited us into their humble abodes, through the images of clothes hanging in the kitchen and a set of exercise dumbbells left on the floor. Contrary to the stereotype of impoverished families as dysfunctional, many of the photographs portrayed close-knit ties among family members and neighbours. A crowd-pleaser among visitors to the exhibition is a photograph featuring a participant’s adorable cousins strumming the guitar on bed. Even the neighbourhood’s cat made an appearance in the photographs. In visual ethnography, images provide viewers with a brief insight to the thinking of the photographer; in this case, the capturing of such intimate spaces, all of which mean something important to our photographers, represent the everyday spaces they utilise. In documenting these images, the photographers indulge in place-making, creating associations between identity and place.  It is here that we truly discover the malleability of the idea of ‘home’ and its connectedness with a variety of other appropriated spaces seen in the pictures – the corridor, the street soccer court, an empty bus, the community centre, the study space at the void deck or the library. Home for these photographers ceases to be a mere place of dwelling and expands to include public spaces, which can be privately appropriated for however long they deem comfortable or possible.



Mizan_Neighbourhoof facilities

The home-place-space dynamic is closely tied to their socioeconomic status. Living in relatively small and spartan public rental flats where they don’t necessarily have access to their own space, luxuries such as air-conditioning, WiFi, computer or even quietude, the Lengkok Bahru teenagers actively look for ways to appropriate usable spaces. They spend countless hours engaging in outdoor play, strumming the guitar, singing and mingling with their friends at the common corridor. A photograph of a boy lying on the corridor exemplifies this agentic stretching of the limits of home. Other photos depict the façades of the neighbourhood’s library and community centre; they do not look aesthetically pleasing but to the participants, these places afforded them luxurious spaces to complete their school assignments. Finding ways to overcome the challenges imposed by their physical living environment and socioeconomic status could be equated with ‘Strategies’. The teenagers’ spirit of improvisation is aptly portrayed in a photograph of a construction cone standing on a parched field. The construction cone was used by the soccer-loving teenagers as a makeshift goal post.


Perhaps best encapsulating the theme of ‘Aspirations’ is the photo of two pairs of cleaned soccer boots perched securely on the window ledge, left to sun. No surprises here – the photograph’s creator harbours hopes of making it big as a soccer player. Another photo features two rows of dancers – mostly females – clad in colourful traditional Malay costumes and striking elegant poses. They might be part of a dance group in school but to the photographer, it symbolised her dream of performing on a bigger stage.

To a large extent, these themes are in line with the objectives of this project – to make visible the rather invisible experiences and narratives of individuals living in public rental housing in Singapore and to debunk some of the stereotypes and myths associated with poverty. For instance, in a society that prizes meritocracy, individual attributes (such as a lack of ambition) rather than structural impediments have often been highlighted in the discussion on income inequality and social mobility.

At the same time, we were wary of the possibility of unintentionally generating the effect of poverty porn through the photos exhibited. It was imperative that the photographs selected, while raising awareness of the challenges faced by the participants and their families, also illustrated the human agency and empowerment as embodied in the teenagers. This explains the exhibition’s emphasis on the participants’ aspirations and strategies. Given the sensitive nature that the issue of income inequality poses to some people, the representation of Lengkok Bahru and its residents is intertwined with ethical considerations as aforementioned. Initially, one of the photographs selected under the theme ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ featured the father of one of the participants. When the exhibition date drew closer and as we were unable to obtain permission from him, we decided to err on the side of caution by removing the photograph from the exhibition.

Of Light Leaks and Dreams

For any other exhibition, to showcase photographs which are out-of-focus, poorly composed or over-exposed is tantamount to committing career suicide. Yet quite a number of the photographs we chose to exhibit had these ‘flaws’. Rather than rejecting them outright, we decided to embrace photographic ‘flaws’, incorporating them as a central feature in the overarching narrative. The purpose wasn’t just to invite the audience to reflect on art accessibility and cultural capital as crucial to producing art, but to also rethink the ideals of photography and art. Do light leaks necessarily mean that the camera needs better sealing? Or are they symptomatic of photographer-related idiosyncrasies? For our mobile phone-dependent participants, using the film camera was a novelty that quickly became a source of anxiety. Unsure if the film had been properly locked in the camera and whether the images had been captured on film, some of the participants actually opened up the film compartment to reassure themselves. The result: yellow-hued spots which engulfed parts or all of the images. Of course, there were purists who remarked how our presentation of these overexposed pictures as ‘artistic’ had degraded the craft. If so, they had completely missed the underlying message we were trying to present: that the medium, flawed as it may be, is the message. We wanted the audience to be able to accept this amateurism and use it as a starting point for interaction with the photographer’s life world to better understand a different side of Singapore.

Although we had lofty ambitions for the project, we really didn’t expect much given the circumstances. Without any financial support at the beginning and juggling full-time jobs, we were never able to fully commit to the programme. But the enthusiasm showed by the teenagers willed us on and as we continued working with them, we realised that there was so much that we could achieve together. So even though the teenagers weren’t directly involved in the selection of the pictures for the exhibition, they contributed through other ways such as availing themselves as docents at the exhibition, addressing the audience in the question-and-answer session and the creating of the exhibition space. On the eve of the two-day exhibition at Scape, some of the young photographers brought along cherished belongings such as a soccer jersey and a tournament trophy to be displayed alongside the photos, thereby adding personal touches to an otherwise formal space. Throughout the whole process, the participative element remained intact and this happily coincided with our objective of instilling confidence in the participants, who narrated their biographies within the context of Lengkok Bahru through the photos.

Their interaction with the public wasn’t at all scripted. Rather, the teenagers spoke earnestly and very honestly of their circumstances. Now this may seem like a normal occurrence one expects in exhibitions but the fact is that these teenagers are very shy and not used to being given a platform to be listened to. Thus to see them seize the opportunity to tell their stories to strangers filled our hearts with pride and joy. It was a poignant moment, one which reflected the potential that participative photography holds in effecting small yet very substantial changes to the lives of the participants. Inevitably, this programme has not eradicated the problem of economic inequality in society nor has it claimed to be. But, it is an important start; an essential experiment, one which marries the sociological paradigm, with its durable concepts such as social and cultural capital, and the visual medium of photography.

As a means of collecting data, photographs taken by the participants yielded more than we could have gathered through merely doing interviews. Photographs provide an insight to how these teenagers view their world, how they make places intimate through the appropriation of spaces and how they define home, family and success, beyond what they would usually describe in words. Furthermore, the images which were washed out as a result of the light leaks reflected the anxiety the teenagers faced as a result of dealing with old technology, which effectively denied them the luxury of immediate review found in cameras today. Somehow, the effect gave the pictures an attractive sheen, a layer akin to the rose-tint lens through which we often perceive youth and childhood. In a way, this is true. The images depict the rawness and innocence of youth, of dreams and aspirations which bask in accidental light leaks.  But make no mistake, dreaming in light leaks is precarious; indulge too far in this romanticism and the images disappear, completely washed out along with the stories and aspirations of the youths in Lengkok Bahru.  



Singapore Photobooks and Zines Review 2017

By Lee Chang Ming

[Lee Chang Ming is a photographer and writer based in Singapore. He runs Nope Fun.]

Here are a selection of photobooks and zines by Singaporean photographers/artists:

Nguan: How Loneliness Goes

One of my personal favorite photographers for the longest time, Nguan’s How Loneliness Goes is 48 paged, cloth bound and features 27 pictures.

How Loneliness Goes documents life in Singapore, as seen through Nguan’s subtle and quiet aesthetics. Something about the images speaks about solitude, yet provides a sense of solidarity… perhaps it’s just like that Star Anna’s song, We’re All Alone in This Together.

The first edition of this photobook was published in 2013. This series is also currently being exhibited at FOST Gallery in Singapore. Perhaps an interesting comparison/exercise to see how the series translates across different mediums.

How Loneliness Goes

Marilyn Yun Jun: Like Buttermilk Sky 

Like Buttermilk Sky is a black and white Risograph photobook by Marilyn Yun Jin. Her cinematic and emotive images form a narrative into the inner worlds of those around her, retold through her lens.

She also co-founded a Risograph and publication studio called Knuckles & Notch, which is a great space for anyone who loves printed matter.Like Buttermilk Sky

Genevieve Long: Secrets 

Secrets is a palm-sized publication by Genevieve Leong. The 32-page self-published photo zine celebrates the quiet moments: unexpected geometry in high-rise buildings, blooming bougainvilleas, a moment of solitude.



Singapore-born Tokyo-based photographer ND Chow, perhaps best known for his portraits of cultural icons, re-looks his humble beginnings in this collection of images taken while travelling around the world for 2 years in his younger days.

Contemplative images with an undertone of yearning. Yearning for moments long gone; longing for genuine connection with strangers that perhaps only lasted for the split second when the shutter was pressed.



Best Indonesian Photobooks of 2016

By Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah

[Editor’s note: Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah are founding members of The Photobook Club-Jakarta in 2013. Its aim is to discuss issues relating to photobooks published in Indonesia and beyond.]

2016 was atrocious.

We saw too many deaths. Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Indonesians (especially Jakartans) continue to deliberate over Ahok and the forthcoming gubernatorial election.

On the other hand, we witnessed the Indonesian photobook scene thrive as never before. There were publications, book tours, bookseller tours, photobook exhibitions, workshops and public interventions. We saw new voices and established practitioners publishing their latest work. We now have independent photobook publishers in Indonesia–Kamboja Press and Binatang Press. Kamboja published the books of Vira Talisa and Tampan Destawan respectively while Binatang brought out Anton Ismael’s.

Now that the bar has been raised, 2017 will hopefully bring more interesting publications onto the table.

Here are the best Indonesian photobooks of 2016 that caught our eyes. The criteria for selection are:

  • Published in Indonesia in 2016
  • Featured photographs made by Indonesians
  • The photobook should be able to captivate viewers to revisit the work.
  • The photographs should be able to make the viewers feel as though they are in the scene portrayed.
  • The publication should have physical qualities that support the above criteria.

In no particular order:

The New Sun by Rian Afriadi


Some people will loathe the design, others will love it. The book is born under the collaboration of Rian Afriadi and artist-designer Natasha Gabriella Tontey. It feels like a story book with a dark twist at the end, which makes sense, since we’re looking at Rian’s imagining of another world under a different sun. The design and text fit the book well, though I wish they would choose another paper for the photographs.


Flock Project Vol. 1 by Aji Susanto Anom, Kurniadi Widodo and Arif Furqan


This volume results from experimentation and collaboration, two things that we believe in as well. As a result, these books are quite tightly edited and highly produced. The Flock guys have also been pushing boundaries, creating bridges with other communities, producing zines, while maintaining their sense of humour–something that’s increasingly rare amongst photographers today.


After N by Gregory Rusmana


What’s with Surakarta (Solo)? Every year, we find a few photobooks from that city, which always feature contrasty, black-and-white images, creating an impression that Solo only offers dark, bleak thoughts. After N is no different. However, it’s also refreshing to see how Greg envisions the world (the book is his edit) since his marriage. Again, we believe that good photographs deserve to be printed on the best paper.


Honorable mention: #WISTAU by Flock Project


Pokes fun at people who take things seriously: check.

Self deprecating humour: check.

Social commentary: check.

Designed in the spirit that only a zine can convey: check.


Best Indonesian Photobooks of 2015

By Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah

[Editor’s note: Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah are founding members of The Photobook Club-Jakarta in 2013. Its aim is to discuss issues relating to photobooks published in Indonesia and beyond.]

These are our picks for the best Indonesian photobooks of 2015.

If you need a reminder, these are the criteria for selection:
– Published in Indonesia
– Published in 2015
– Feature photographs made by Indonesians
– The book should be able to captivate viewers to revisit the work.
– The photographs should be able to make the viewers feel as though they are in the scene portrayed.
– The publication should have physical qualities that support the above criteria.

In no particular order:

Ruang Bermain
By Sri Sadono
Reviewed by Ridzki Noviansyah

Sri Sadono - Ruang Bermain

Unlike 2014, when there were several long-term documentary projects being published as photobooks, we have had only a few in 2015. These include Yoppy Pieter’s Saujana Sumpu and S Rama Surya’s A Certain Grace. However, there are more personal projects (as distinct from street photography) that have become published as photobooks. One of them is Sri Sadono’s Ruang Bermain.

I would describe this book in the same way as I would describe the children who appear in the book—unpretentious and lovely. The photographs portray Indonesian kids at their “playground”—whether it is an open field or an apartment high above. While the photographs are lovely enough to view, the book can use a bit more sequencing work and better production.

By Fanny Octavianus
Reviewed by Ridzki Noviansyah

JKT - Fanny Octavianus

With the increased interest in street photography, there has been an increase in the number of people who call themselves street photographers, showing up on the streets of Jakarta on every car-free day to take some shots. On the other hand, there are people like Erik Prasetya and Fanny Octavianus who have worked quietly for years, covering the streets of Jakarta.

Fanny Octavianus’ approach in photographing Jakarta reveals a constant tug-of-war. As a photojournalist, Fanny produces frames that are good enough to run on the front page of newspapers. However he also creates pictures that imbue a certain degree of romanticism. For Fanny, Jakarta is a place that he loathes and loves at the same time. This can be seen in JKT.

Saujana Sumpu
By Yoppy Pieter
Reviewed by Tommy N Armansyah

Saujana Sumpu - Yoppy Pieter

First, let me say the one thing that I do not like about this book. It concerns the closing picture, the strongest image, of a boy, his body half immersed in water, holding the head of an almost fully immersed girl. As an individual picture, even though it creates an unease in me, I like it very much. However, as part of the book, it is too strong, making it a bad fit with the rest of the book.

Overall, the book is wonderful. Looking at the pictures, walking through the pages, you can almost hear a saluang [editor’s note: musical instrument of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra] being played. The pictures are poetic. Yoppy is the master in making such images. If his intention is to take us, the readers, to look at present-day Sumpu (or Sumpur), where most of its male inhabitants have left for the cities for better employment opportunities, leaving behind women and children, he has done it beautifully. Published by PannaFoto Institute, the book design is simple—complementing the pictures, making the viewing enjoyable. The work is also featured in the recent Jakarta Biennale 2015.

As I Was Moving Ahead
By Homer Harianja
Reviewed by Tommy N Armansyah

As I Was Moving Ahead - Homer Harianja

In some ways, As I Was Moving Aheadis an odd inclusion. While the rest of the practitioners featured in this year’s selection are all professional photographers, Homer is an amateur photographer with a keen pair of eyes. All the photographs in the book are taken in analogue format. The photographs are witty and vibrant, concerning family holidays, church visits and other mundane daily activities. There are also repeated images of people (mostly kids) peeking through something.

This is the only colour photobook in our selection for 2015, published through the newly established Semarang-based print-on-demand company, “Retrospective Journal”.



Philippine Photobooks Review 2015 / A.g. De Mesa (The Philippines)

By A.g. De Mesa

In terms of the publication of photobooks in the Philippines, 2014 was a better year, with Wawi Navarroza’s Hunt Gather and Terraria and Jake Verzosa’s The Last Women of Kalinga being published. In 2015, only Dago Santos’ Lighght caught my attention. It is a simple book compiling the little moments when light and space converge, triggering a photographic response from Dago.

"Lighght" by Dago Santos
“Lighght” by Dago Santos

However, in the same year, we also witnessed the rise of photo zines, helping to raise awareness in terms of showcasing work in the book format. This is perhaps the result of Fotosemana Festival 2015, a micro-festival in Manila focusing on photobooks. The festival showcased Philippine photobooks and zines from the past few years. Selections from Self Publish, Be Happy, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive, and Indie Photobook Library were also displayed during the event.

The DIY effort of Philippine photographers helped to push forward the evolution of photo zines in the country. Notable examples in 2015 include Czar Kristoff’s Fugue, Jhemuel Salvador’s White Pictures, Erin Nøir’s Mono series, and Brian Sergio’s Bomba.

"Fugue" by Czar Kristoff
“Fugue” by Czar Kristoff

Fugue was released during Fotosemana and co-published by Thousandfold. As this is not made using offset printing, perhaps a discussion on the differences between a zine and a book is needed soon. The zine’s images, shot mainly in black-and-white, concern the small details and objects that are often disregarded. Only the orange wrap, the red centerfold and the blue cover bring color to the book. This allows the readers to concentrate on the ways in which the photographs interact with one another.

Jhemuel Salvador’s White Pictures compels the readers to question whether the objects in his pictures are actually white, made to be white, or appear as white through technical manipulation.

"White Pictures" by Jhemuel Salvador
“White Pictures” by Jhemuel Salvador

Mono by Erin Nøir takes the approach of the diaristic Japanese photo zines of the 1990s, much in the same vein as Hiromix and others, complete with datestamp and all. The zine even flips from right to left.

"Mono" series by Erin Nøir
“Mono” series by Erin Nøir

Brian Sergio’s Bomba is full of photos of naked women in suggestive poses. Crucially, its design is inspired by the Philippine tabloids in terms of size, paper and the absence of binding. These tabloids usually headline scantily clad women. Sergio’s zine ramps it up by a notch. Your mileage may vary with the images but the design is very interesting.

"Bomba" by Brian Sergio
“Bomba” by Brian Sergio

In 2016, I believe there will be more photo zines published in the Philippines. More importantly, there will be more people working on traditional photo books, targeting release in the next few years. As for content, they may focus on the political situation in the Philippines with the upcoming presidential elections. But it is hard to say.

Generally, photo zines work best when the approach is personal. If the momentum persists, practices in book making, designing, and the overall production of photobooks will gain further traction, expanding the options for photographers in terms of showcasing their work.


A.g. De Mesa is a Filipino photographer and writer. / http://readingphotographs.asia/

Never a Last Refugee (2015) / Y-Dang Troeung (Canada/Cambodia)


"Snow Looks Nice to Asian Refugees”, The Montreal Gazette, Dec 4, 1980.
“Snow Looks Nice to Asian Refugees”, The Montreal Gazette, Dec 4, 1980.

By Y-Dang Troeung

My parents named me after camp Khao I-Dang, the refugee camp where I was born. They did so to remember their survival, and those international aid workers who cared for them after an improbable escape from the labor camps in Cambodia, across the landmine-riddled jungle, to the border of Thailand. As difficult and confusion-inducing as my name is, I wonder now how my life would have turned out, had they had named me “Goderich” after the small Canadian town where a kind group of sponsors first pooled their resources to bring us to Canada. Or if they had named me “Trudeau,” after the man who held me as an infant when my family first arrived in Canada, the man who is the centerpiece of my family’s postcard-perfect photograph commemorating our arrival.

I think of this picture often. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcoming my family to Canada at a ceremonial tea party on Parliament Hill. Why were we chosen, why were we given prestige for this photo? My family was not just any refugee family Canada had taken in. Arriving on December 3, 1980, we were designated the last, the “final” Southeast Asian refugees admitted under the special government program. But of course there was ongoing need, ongoing suffering. The war in Cambodia continued for another 18 years, yet we were the last. And as the last, we were to symbolize something more than just gratitude. We were proof that Canada had fulfilled its quota, had checked “saved refugee” off the good karma list. We were to be the symbol that Canada had done what it was charged to do, and needn’t be asked to do more.

The scholar Sara Ahmed speaks of the “Happiness Duty” of the migrant, which means “telling a certain story about your arrival as good, or the good of your arrival.” With my family living in poverty, and haunted by the knowledge of those left behind, I had difficulty performing this duty. I remember re-living my family’s experience as a child. I remember the words thrown my way. “Genocide” was not an accurate definition of what happened, I was told. “Death” was too heavy for a child to say. But I could say “tragedy.” I could talk about how terrible war was. War in the abstract, as if what happened to us was an abstract thing.

The recent photo of a deceased Syrian refugee child has gone viral, it has motivated movements and pushed demands for the migrant crisis in Europe to be met not with suspicion and refusal, but with compassion and care. The global moral eruption that has been stirred by the circulation of one photograph is a feature that those who suffered from the Pol Pot regime did not have. There were so few foreign witnesses to the atrocities, and little to no photographs emerged from that time. Instead, to remember the genocide we have numbers. Figures of the deceased, and mere figures refuse to inspire the same collective mourning. Last year was the greatest refugee crisis in European history. This year, we have far surpassed last year’s numbers. Like in 1979, for so long all we gazed upon were these figures, some that grip the imagination by their sheer volume, yet each number is a story, a mourning, a loss. All the while, to remember losses that Cambodians endured all I had were the numbers people tossed. The counting of every breath of life, when it stopped, when it ended.

If we allow it, there is another number that can grip our imaginations. 10,000, the number of Syrian migrants that Canada promised to secure in January 2015, 8998 of which it has so far failed to meet. I would not be here had Canada not met its goal of 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in 1980. I would not be here without compassion. That of Canadian citizens who petitioned the government to do more about the refugee crisis, who marched in the streets of Toronto in 1979 in support of Operation Lifeline, who set up a community fund to help my family buy food during our first few months in Canada. My history is proof that there is compassion and love. Now we are meant to de-prioritize compassion. We are meant to put love on hold, because we showed it to others in the past, because it burdens us in the present. But the good of the past does not permit the indifference to the now. The Canada that I believe in is a Canada where there is never a last refugee.

Y-Dang Troeung lived in Canada from 1980-2012. She is now an Assistant Professor of English at City University of Hong Kong.

Draft Introduction to “A History of Photography in Indonesia: From the Colonial Era to the Early 21st Century” (2015 ) / Brian Arnold

From "High Hopes" Series, Courtesy Wimo Ambala Bayang
From “High Hopes” Series, Courtesy Wimo Ambala Bayang

By Brian Arnold

I was 22 the first time I went to Indonesia. I went simply on a college semester abroad. At the time, I was really interested in music, and went to study gamelan. The whole experience was eye opening, and the amount of personal and cultural discovery has lasted me a lifetime, or at least was enough to initiate a much longer study and interest in Indonesia. I was just there for about 6 months, but the impact on my creative and intellectual identity was enormous.

Just a few months before I left for Bali this first time, I discovered photography. I know it sounds like a cliché (though maybe less so in our current digital age), but the first time I saw a print come up in the developer, I was hooked. I immediately threw myself into photography with incredible enthusiasm and abandon. In just a few months, I did everything I could do to learn about photography, even landing my first professional experience as a photographer working at an important photographic archive in Colorado. Like my time in Indonesia, these first experiences with photography provided enough fuel to sustain a life long creative and intellectual curiosity.

When I discovered these things, it was an important time in my life, really a time with a strong emergence of identity. I think of it as no coincidence that I discovered photography for the first time just before departing for Bali. I still remember the feeling of engagement, creativity, and self-empowerment when I made my first photographs, really because I still feel the same when photographing today. I can say the same about my engagement with Indonesia; my time in Bali and Java always feels important, like an empowering time of creative and intellectual engagement.

For most of my adult life, I’ve pursued two distinct but parallel studies in the arts – as a photographer and artist of my own culture, and as a student and performer of Indonesian art and classical music. When I left college, I set off to begin my life as an artist. I moved to Denver, CO, to work with a group of musicians and artists devoted to studying and advocating for Balinese and Indonesian arts. I worked with a nonprofit organization called Tunas Mekar, both a gamelan orchestra and an educational foundation dedicated to the advancement of Indonesian arts. I made this group my primary focus, and worked with the foundation for several years out of college.

While I was working with Tunas Mekar, I initiated my own study of photography. I set up a small studio, and worked during all my free time pursuing my creative initiatives with photography. I did this for years, and eventually reached a point when I recognized it was time to my make my primary commitment to photography, and an engagement with arts of my own culture. Thus, I enrolled in an MFA program in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.

After completing my graduate degree, I began a teaching career, working in a well-known school for art education. Here, I taught photography and new media arts to graduate and undergraduate students from all over the world. This proved a wonderful opportunity to develop my own philosophies of art and creativity, and specifically their relationship to a greater cultural experience.

As my own identity as an artist and photographer became more concrete, I became increasingly interested in reconnecting with gamelan and Indonesia. I traveled back to Bali and Java a number of times, and began studying and performing with the Cornell University Gamelan Ensemble.

Over several years, my connection with Cornell grew into a research position, and I eventually had the idea to try and merge my interests in photography and Indonesian art. I used the incredible resources at Cornell to initiate a study of the history of photography in Indonesia. This began as a textual study, but over several years, I found funding to return to Indonesia, really with the intention of trying to learn about contemporary art photography on the islands.

These first discussions proved to be remarkably successful. While just spending a couple of months in Bali and Java, I visited a number of different universities and art academies, and met with a variety of curators, educators, critics, collectors and artists interested in photography. I spent the bulk of my time in Denpasar, Ubud, Yogyakarta and Jakarta, but made some important connections at that time, specifically in Java.

In Yogya, I spent an afternoon at Mes56, an artists’ collaborative situated then just outside the kraton. Long known as a center for dance and painting, Yogyakarta is also home to the Cemeti Art House, an influential gallery for the development of contemporary art in Java. Mes56 was developed by a group of artists interested in photography and new media. At the time when the collective came together, it was difficult for artists interested in these types of media to find exhibition opportunities, so they created their own. Amongst the original members of the collective are Wimo Ambala Bayang, Jim Allen Abel, and Angki Purbandono, all graduates of the state art academy in Yogya, and all part of the first generation of Indonesian artists interested in exploring photography and related media. Today, Mes56 remains an important part of the Yogyakarta art scene, hosting exhibitions and residencies for artists from Indonesia, Australia, and The Netherlands working in photography and related disciplines.

It was also in 2011 that I made my first successful contact with the ISI Yogya (Institut Seni Indonesia – the Indonesian Institute of Art), developing an ongoing relationship with Dr. Suawastiwi Triatmodjo, Dean of the Fine Arts Program. In connecting with the art academy and Ibu Suawastiwi, I got my first introduction to art education in Java. She provided me with the wonderful opportunity to meet with students and faculty from the program, to learn how photography is included in their education.

In subsequent visits, I was able to build on these first relationships, meeting more artists and curators across Java. With help from the American Institute for Indonesian Studies, I was able to connect with a variety of academic programs around Central and Western Java, and lectured and taught workshops in schools of architecture, communication, Muslim broadcasting, and art. I was also able to meet different curators and educators, and see photographic exhibitions both professional and amateur. Each of these experiences helped give me a broader understanding of photography in Java today.

As conceived as fine art, photography is still a very new thing in Indonesia, as it is in most of Southeast Asia. There are a couple of threads within larger, global history of photography that are essential in understanding the development of photographic art in the region.

In the beginning, photography represented tremendous privilege. It took education, leisure time, and most importantly, money to pursue. And thus in the early years of its invention, photography was really only practiced by the Western powers in Europe and North America (with some important exception in Japan and China – both relevant in looking at the medium in Indonesia). Immediately, these cultures recognized the power this new invention had for their economic and political adventures abroad, and thus photography became a primary tool for their colonial endeavors, really from the get-go.

Often with more romantic or altruistic intentions – to educate their populations at home about these foreign cultures and the wonderful work and civilization brought from the outside – the colonial powers sent photographers abroad to start recording the government work in these developing nations. Immediately, the social power of photography was in place, as photography quickly became an essential tool in defining the “other,” helping to facilitate economic and political supremacy. Among other things, photography provided an opportunity to further objectify the native population, and gave visual evidence to compare the differences of culture and civilization. As an economic privilege, it provided authority that wasn’t easily shared or translated, and that economic privilege quickly became an intellectual and cultural privilege.

The second thread within this greater global history of photography is photography’s relentless march towards democratization. Perhaps first manifested with the inventions of George Eastman and Eastman Kodak, the goal for the last hundred years has been to make everyone a photographer. The current digital age is perhaps the completion of this goal. There aren’t many adults today without a camera; or better put, anyone with a phone today also holds a camera. And they say there are more Facebook users per capita in Indonesia than any other country in the world. In her wonderful book, Indonesia Etc., Elizabeth Pisani observes the presence of digital and social media on the outer island of Flores:

The boy, bright, smiley and fond of geography, would climb a tree, pick a mango, throw it half-eaten to the ground because he needed his hands for catapulting. When he got peckish again, he would just climb another tree. The girl, with whom I had been sharing a bed, was in her monosyllabic post-pubescent phase; her purpose was to get high enough up the mountain to get a signal on her cell phone so that she could check Facebook.[1]

While originally discarded as a tool of the colonizer, Indonesians largely ignored photography for much of the second half of the 20th century. It was certainly part of family and village rituals, as well as an essential part of the press, but its dissemination across the culture was limited. That said, photography continued to spread rampantly in the build up to the digital era – one hour photo processors emerging globally – and photography proved an essential tool in reformasi, the revolt that led to the fall of Suharto. When control of photography was lost, Suharto lost control of the cultural. With the emergence of digital imaging, all that has changed. In Indonesia, as throughout much of Southeast Asia, photography is now fully emerging as a fine art medium, and this is largely the result of digital photography, the complete democratization of the medium.

Before fully addressing this new history, there is a bit more to say about the presence of photography in the colonized nation. There are two passages in particular. The first is from the great African American folklorist and novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, from Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old. Wouldn’t have found out then, but a man come long takin’ pictures and without askin’ anybody, Shelby, dat was the oldest boy, he told him to take us. Round a week later de man brought de picture for Mis’ Washburn to see and pay him which she did, then give us all a good lickin’.

So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’

Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’

Dey used to call me Alphabet ‘cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at the picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so

Ah said: ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’

Den dey all laughed real hard. But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest.[2]

There is a lot to unpack here, but before taking a closer look, I’d like to look at another quote from famed Javanese novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his great work This Earth of Mankind:

“You are fortunate indeed, my students,” he said, “to be able to witness the beginning of the modern era here in the Indies.

Modern! How quickly that word had surged forward and multiplied itself like a bacteria throughout the world. (At least, that is what people were saying.) So allow me to use the word, though I still don’t fully understand its meaning.

In short, in this modern era tens of thousands of copies of a photo could be reproduced each day.[3]

The main character in both these novels – Janie and Minke – is struggling to assert his or her identity, working against the confines of a dominating white or European culture. The passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God is both dense and beautiful, and has long attracted the attention of literary and cultural critics alike. Essentially, Hurston suggests that the photograph creates difference, and that the power of racial hegemony is solidified with the camera.

This Earth of Mankind tells the story of a young Javanese man caught between tradition, colonialism, and the expanding modern world. Minke tries to reconcile these disparate motivations to discover a true Indonesian identity, one that is both self-reliant and modern. Photography, in this quoted passage, functions as a metaphor for the magnitude, pace, and power of the developing modern world, at odds with Indonesian culture and traditions, but essential for Indonesia to understand as it moved towards independence.

In western intellectual and creative history, photography holds a history and presence independent of – indeed preceding – film, video, installation, and performing arts. In contemporary Indonesia, however, photography developed as an art form because of an interest in film, video, installation, and performing arts. In many ways, photography moved into the scene as a tool to document other happenings, and simply as a way to provide visual information for artists interested in working across media. There are a number of people who led the way to some of these changes – multimedia artists like Nindityo Adipurnomo, Mella Jaarsma, FX Harsono, Heri Dono, and pioneering video artist Krisna Murti. Many of the first photographic artists coming out of Java – particularly Yogyakarta – used visual and conceptual strategies to lay the groundwork for their photographic projects. Many of these artists – Wimo Bayang, Jim Allen Abel, and Angki Purbandono – explored photography with incredible freedom, borrowing from visual languages already in place within the creative discourse of their time and place.

In West Java, the Institute of Technology in Bandung (ITB) provided a starting point for emerging discussions on photography. One of the oldest higher education institutions in Indonesia, ITB has long held a remarkable reputation in the arts. The institute was originally founded by the Dutch, and from the beginning allowed for more western models of education.[4] Here I met photographers exploring the technical and visual vocabularies inherent to the medium, both in traditional and visual formats, including photographers and artists like Henrycus Napit Sungaro and Deden Durahman.

Jakarta has long been home to many of the intellectual and cultural resources of the archipelago, including the Galeri Jurnalistik Antara, a small collective dedicated to teaching, exhibiting, and publishing photojournalism. Many of these photographers – such as Rama Surya and Oscar Motuloh – blur the lines between journalism and art, and pursue their work with a great understanding of time and culture. A younger generation of artists like Tino Djumini, Amran Malik Hakim and Arum Tresnaningtyas Dayuputri are emerging. Some of them are educated in the art programs of the city. They work with an eye for documentary photography, using the simple and poetic possibilities of the medium to record important social layers and counter cultures.

My approach to formulating a perspective on the history of art in Indonesia is indebted to the work of Claire Holt and Astri Wright. Both women developed a great insight into their subjects by starting with a foundation of clear cultural patterns, symbols and metaphors.

Claire Holt is entirely unique, not only for the depth of her achievements, but also for the recognition that her work has found in both the States and Indonesia. She has always been characterized as a remarkably sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent woman, and clearly warranted great respect from her colleagues in both countries. Reading through her manuscripts and research archives, her patience and love of Indonesia have been contagious, serving as tremendous inspiration.

Holt’s text concerns a broad chronology of Indonesian art. Her work begins with the medieval Hindu/Buddhist architecture of Java and Sumatra, but also includes thorough investigations of Javanese court dance and wayang (shadow puppet) traditions, modernist painting and sculpture from Bali, and concludes with the emerging nationalism and how it affected the arts and art education.

In introducing her work, Holt writes:

Art in Indonesia correspondingly reflects an enormous diversity. Both geographical and historical factors have always precluded the development of a homogeneous art with a single line of evolution. Today a multitude of cultural phenomena coexist in the archipelago at quite different stages of their life cycles. Some are ancient but still very vital; others are old but are apparently dying or undergoing radical transformations; still others were born recently and are growing vigorously.

In the continuum of cultural growth, old and new elements overlap, fuse, or exist side by side. Dates are only approximate dividers marking the introduction of new ideas or techniques without necessarily implying the disappearance of preceding beliefs and practices.

Published in 1967, Holt’s words ring true today. While it is easy to find someone in Java who has never seen a wayang play, many artists still say that the essential foundation for Javanese and Indonesian art lies in understanding wayang.

Fundamental to Holt’s work are the ideas of continuity and change. This is a wonderful and complicated idea, acknowledging what is essential and unchanging about a culture and its creative expressions (however elusive), but also attentive to the relentless march towards evolution and change, perhaps best epitomized by technology.

Astri Wright’s primary text on Indonesian art – Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters – stems from a similar foundation as Holt’s text, specifically the ideas of continuity and change. Influenced by Holt, Wright begins her study by asserting the foundational framework of soul, spirit, and mountain – recurring metaphors and symbols in Indonesian mythology and social constructions.

Also striking in Wright’s work is her perspective on an emerging Modernism, and the continued development of Indonesian culture and identity after the revolution and independence:

To ‘Indonesians’ of the early years of this century, modern experience was shaped by an accelerating influx of new ideas about education, language, history, and identity. With the introduction of new technologies, in part triggered by foreign occupation and war, an unprecedented self-consciousness about one’s place in relation to the past and a dramatically changing present began to develop.

This new awareness of other places, cultures, and histories, both past and in the making, created the need to question those structures and assumptions of one’s own world… Self-conscious reconstructions of the past have accompanied the search for a definition of the present. Fueled by an unprecedented urge to evaluate and compare weaknesses and strengths, Indonesians have attempted to create a better platform from which to meet the challenges of an increasingly complicated and anxiety-provoking future.[5]

From my experience in Indonesia, thinking of the development of photography and new media, as well as the historic election of President Jokowi, Wright’s observations still ring true; ‘Indonesian’ identity is a work in progress, negotiating not only the past, present and future, but also confronting global economic, political, and religious forces. Wright did the fieldwork for her book Soul, Spirit, Mountain before reformasi and the fall of Suharto. However, in many ways, the questions and struggles that she raised are even more apparent today, as the nation struggles to become a democracy, delicately balanced between a progressive, global economy and a strong conservative movement, and marred by the scars of colonialism and an oppressive dictatorship.

In drawing upon the works of these women, my hope is to continue the thoughtful relationships they developed with their colleagues in Indonesia, but also to offer a similar perspective on photography. Whether practiced by the earlier colonial presence or the contemporary artists today, photography provides a visual vocabulary and record for understanding the historical and cultural trajectory of Indonesia. And while the intentions of the colonial photographers and those working today may be quite different, in the end a critical comparison demonstrates an evolving record of Indonesian culture and identity.

Trying to work as a photographer in Indonesia has proven a much greater challenge than I have anticipated. In pivotal and yet elusive ways, I know I’ve discovered important parts of my own identity through my engagements in Indonesia, but this hasn’t always readily translated into a clear visualization. I initially instigated this study as a way to find a photographic voice for myself. This has proven to be remarkably successful. Meeting photographers and artists working across Bali and Java has brought a great deal of clarity to me. To see other people using photography to wrestle with their own questions has opened my eyes. And the chance to see the evolution of the medium in Indonesia over time has broadened my understanding of the culture, in ways that have made it easier to think both objectively and subjectively with the camera.

My intention for this book is to help develop a conversation on a subject that is still being discovered and explored. Hence, this is in no way a definitive history. That said, I do hope that the documentation and observations recorded here will be of value for others interested in exploring Indonesia, photography, and the complex evolution of cultural exchange and self-visualization.

[1] Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, Etc.

[2] Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston.

[3] This Earth of Mankind, part 1 of the Buru Quartet, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated from Indonesian by Max Lane.

[4] Claire Holt’s wonderful book, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change, provides some great insight into the establishment and pedagogy of the different art academies in Indonesia, and how the debates of independence and nationalism influenced discussions of art and art education.

[5] Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters.


Brian Arnold is a photographer, educator, and musician based in Ithaca, NY.