“I believe that we face incredible obstacles in our attempts to see the world. Everything in our nature tries to deny the world around us; to refabricate it in our own image; to reinvent it for our own benefit. And so, it becomes something of a challenge, a task, to recover (or at least attempt to recover) the real world despite all the impediments to that end.”
– Errol Morris
“Visual culture is now the study of how to understand change in a world too enormous to see but vital to imagine”
– Nicholas Mirzoeff. 2016. How To See The World. New York: Basic Books.
Photography for me, has been a crucial tool in navigating my way through an ever increasingly distracting and confusing world of constant rapid flow of goods, information, and ideas. In such a dizzying world I see photography as a means to step back and see the bigger picture; or better yet, a means to connect with others through a medium which transcends words. Photography has allowed me to enter different communities and to expose myself to different subjects, to challenge and inquire about social phenomena found around me. This has become the basis of this short essay, which I wrote based on my ethnographic research that amounted to my MA thesis in Anthropology and Sociology written in early 2020. I built this project based on my long-term engagement with PannaFoto Institute and Arkademy. In an ethnographic vein, I had to unpack what their projects are about, highlighting the different means and ends through a reflection on my own experiences as the mentors’ student and through personal conversations with them.
In 2017 I encountered PannaFoto, and through them I took part in workshops on “Visual Literacy” and “Visual Storytelling”. The workshops, motivated as they were by complaints of “visual bombardment” and “visual fatigue”, provided a platform for trying to bridge the gap between the critical reading of images and their aesthetic appreciation; an initiative of utmost importance in an era in which the profusion of digital-social media leaves the spectator overwhelmed, and weary of endless spectacles endemic in everyday uses of media. In effect, spectators become indifferent in critically questioning the construction of images. In a similar vein, I got to know the initiatives of Arkademy in 2019, which springs from a collective of professional Indonesian photographers looking for more innovative and critical ways of photographic engagement by reaching out to the wider public through educational workshops.
With the prevalence of social media as the main platform to showcase photos, often images saturate one another fleetingly and are judged by the number of likes and views received on social media, on the basis of a cultish following. However, workshops conducted by the likes of PannaFoto and Arkademy demanded us to ask the seemingly obvious, yet critical question: do we really understand what we are seeing? The workshop established that visual representation is never neutral; in that, it attempts to deconstruct the practices—the technological and epistemological elements—surrounding an image. Aware of the limited view of labelling images as “good” or “bad”, the workshop initiators recognized that problems of illiteracy, be it visual and textual and uncritical treatment of images, embeds itself within historical and structural issues. It is this problem of literacy that I wish to unpack further within this essay.
Institutionalized Ways of Seeing
As the word ‘literacy’ in the title suggests, the workshop provided analytical tools for which students can apply to critically read images and unpack ways of seeing that have been institutionalized. Visual literacy concerns itself with exposing the “power relations articulated through particular forms of visuality”. Institutions organized a certain visual regime by mobilizing different forms of visuality in order to produce “specific visions of social hierarchies and difference such as class, race, gender, sexuality”. As a part of the history of oppression tied to “tyrannies of capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy”, dominant scopic regimes crystallize into ideological formation and discourses that arrange hierarchy and social difference through images (Gillian Rose, 2001, 9).
In her book Refracted Visions, Karen Strassler discusses the development of the genre of amateur photography practiced by “hobbyist” urban elites forming photo clubs and their role in producing romanticized “authentic (asli) Indonesian” (36) images disseminated globally to assert visions of Indonesia among modern nations. Gaining popularity during the colonial period in the early 20th century “in tandem with the popularization of anthropological discourses and the development of tourism in the Indies” (39), the movement colloquially known in Southeast Asia as “salon photography” incorporated pictorialist aesthetics into its practice inspired by the exoticized ‘Oriental’ mooi Indie painting genre. The emergence of “salon photography” as hobbyist movement in Indonesia followed the ‘Mooi Indie’ portrayal of “a peaceful, timeless idyll[ic]” (41) Indonesia blind to the reality of colonial domination and the violence inflicted on indigenous populations. Such a visual trope continues to operate in today’s global visual economy as many photographers mindlessly capitalize on the ‘tourist gaze’ that depicts Indonesia as an ideal tourist destination in the global tourism industry. The legacy of colonial scopic regimes sustains itself by the workings of an oppressive ideological apparatus well into the Reformasi era. This is evident in Indonesia’s formal public educational institutions and national curriculum. Kurniadi Widodo, a Jogja-based photographer and educator who is also one of the initiators of Arkademy, sees the legacy of the New Order’s education system, which is highly top-down, to be a major impediment:
“In this country, critical thinking skills are not encouraged. In fact, we are deprived of such things. When we criticize, the critics often get misunderstood as a personal attack to the individual.”
Concerned with the perpetuating visual trope of colonial photography, as embodied in the images produced by travel-blogger/photographer-influencer circulating within more dominant, mainstream media platforms, we can see these workshops as interventions in the contemporary visual culture that propagate hegemonic narratives. In particular, Arkademy mentors commit themselves to fostering critical thinking and reflexivity, thus planting the seeds for critical yet active spectators.
Their image-making practices trace the relationship between images and how the world comes into being. The relationship between aesthetics and politics here is made explicit. French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s work The Politics of Aesthetics (2004) highlights contemporary debates in rethinking the interconnection between art and politics beyond established models. Ranciere makes the question of aesthetics central, or even intrinsic, to politics by analysing their common qualities: what is visible leads to what is thinkable, thereby conjuring the realm of possibilities. The visual and symbolic elements of a socio-political order speaks volumes to the characterization and sustainment of the given socio-political regime. They keep a certain kind of world in place. In his other work The Emancipated Spectator (2009), Ranciere argues that the artist, like the “ignorant schoolmaster”, should be someone who “does not teach his pupils his knowledge, but orders them to venture into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified” (11). Likewise, the mentors pedagogically activate the capacity to interpret that which is already within their pupils, exercising an “unpredictable interplay of associations and dissociations” (17), blurring the boundaries prescribed by the dominant capitalist social relations of production between experts and amateur, artist and spectator, watching and doing.
Ben Laksana and Rara Sekar, among others in Arkademy who specialized in critical pedagogy, find inspiration in Paulo Freire’s theoretical framework on Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). Freire’s concept of “conscientization”, the process through which a critical awareness of one’s social reality can be achieved through reflection and action, becomes the foundational guide for their pedagogic approach. In the book, Freire promotes critical thinking as a “practice of freedom”, in recognizing (mis)education as a tool of the oppressor and encourages one to develop alternate modes of learning and teaching.
At heart, the “visual literacy” workshops aim at denaturalizing seeing, re-training the eyes, and in restoring a critical sense of one’s own position in society. They correspond to the politics of looking, seeing, and recognition in a given socio-political order. Interestingly, it is also through visual media that each of us can obtain emancipatory tools from passive spectatorship, as Ben said:
“As a photographer or a reader of photographs, we can resist dominant narratives or problematic official histories through visual work. Visual media like photography as well as cinema is both very effective and affective in countering hegemonic knowledge of a certain social issue narration.”
In this approach, my mentors/interlocutors often use the concept of “Visual Storytelling” as a method of image-production. In short, what distinguishes such documentary approach from photojournalistic conventions is evidently a gentler, slower, and more attentive and closer approach to their subjects which often required the practitioners to return to the subject at hand several times over. Visual storytelling departs from photojournalism in that the photographers delve into issues that emerge from their own personal concerns. This is a practice that militates against the urgent drive in photojournalism, under the pressure of guidelines set by agencies, to capture the most “newsworthy” event.
Yoppy Pieter delineate Visual Storytelling as a practice that “tells a story with series of pictures” and that storytelling, in this sense, means “diving into narratives” as one that is “born out of honesty in your own work, in its content, as well as your photographic technique… and as a storyteller, we have the power to be playful and creative…”. In visual storytelling, narratives structures are constructed using compositional technique. A sequenced frame of images is presented following one after the other, stitched together in a logical and sensible way to form a narration. Moreover, an element of responsibility, in what the photographer sees, captures, and publishes, is valued to be more aware and sensitive towards the images made and published; to take responsibility for its potential effects, for the photographed subject and the discourse it carries.
In developing a critical eye followed by “visual storytelling” training, photography acts as a socio-cultural practice that speaks to ethical concerns. The photographer at work is always in a state of “being with others” (Azoulay, 2012) forging relations with whatever unfolds in front of them. An understanding of photographs not as mere material objects that influence its viewers, but appraising photography as a practice that human subjects use to constitute themselves via the image would open up the interactional space in which relations between the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer emerge as mutually constitutive of each another (Azoulay, 2008). Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (2008) proposes an approach to the process behind meaning-making of photographs that generates a “civil political space”. She holds the position that “the photograph – every photograph – belongs to no one, that she (the user) can become not only its addressee but also its addresser, one who can produce a meaning for it and disseminate this meaning further” (14).
Since social relations are increasingly mediated by images; photography is less about objects of document and evidence, but are more revelatory of communities, experiences, and what binds them together. PannaFoto and Arkademy photo-collective’s training in multidisciplinary and ethically attuned image-making processes implies new experimentations and attempts in reconceptualizing citizenship and participatory politics within a democratizing Indonesian public sphere. Emerging from the authoritarian New Order regime built on secrecy, falsity, and censorship, Indonesia’s relatively free and transparent public sphere of the Reformasi era gave way to alternative, grassroots community media embracing artistic experimentation and documentary approaches. In Indonesia, community media such as the photo-communities discussed in this research emerge out of long struggles against an authoritarian regime that repressed freedom of speech and censored the press, functioning more as mouthpieces of the government imposing a single historical and socio-political narrative of the nation.
Visual advocacy workshops initiate a site within the public sphere in which contestations and arguments that emerge from images themselves: either through a formal analysis, an investigation of who can see and who is seen by whom, or through technical analysis of image production and its political implications. Importantly, the discussions generated in these workshops are not directed towards defining what qualifies as aesthetics or what elements make up the ideal image. Rather, the focus is on establishing a discourse that explores how, with the democratization and digitization of photographic technology, a visual culture can be animated by reaching out to a wider members of the public—the photographers, the photographed subjects, and spectators—all playing a role in validating an aesthetic judgement or appreciation. Through a dialogical approach, these spaces generate new possibilities and political subjectivities that challenge what can be seen, thought, and said.
The social possibilities of photography
It is perhaps too naïve to claim photography can lead to social change. However, in exposing modes of domination and potentials of resistance through images, these collectives’ initiatives demonstrate how visuality is at the very centre of struggles for social justice. Operating within a post-authoritarian public sphere, their workshops create room for alternative narratives and knowledge sharing. As a part of initiatives in democratization, I have argued how the photo-collectives use photography and digital technology as a tool for developing critical consciousness and political subjectivity. Despite these practices still occurring at the margins of the Indonesian mediascape, appealing only to specific circles, they work at the intersections of arts, photography, and pedagogy, that experiment with innovative forms of political engagements and public participation relearning what it means to be concerned and engaged citizens in an increasingly digital and visual public sphere. In a sense, photography as techniques retreats to the background for a while, revealing a range of possibilities the medium has to offer that responds to socio-political and historical changes. As both a participant and an observer of PannaFoto and Arkademy workshops, I have been humbly reminded how photography, first and foremost, is embedded in life itself opening up questions about plural ways of seeing, knowing, and being-with-others.