Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah from Terengganu, the fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, was an avid photographer. In 1958, he was the first Malay photographer inducted as Associate of The Royal Photographic Society in Britain, and he was the patron of the Photographic Society of Malaysia.
By most accounts, the late Sultan Ismail was a salon photographer; salon photography has been a popular movement since the 1950s that emphasises beauty and atmosphere in the work. This label, argues Zhuang Wubin, author of Photography In South-East Asia: A Survey, is a limitation.
He cites Sultan Ismail’s photographs of the eerily empty streets of Kuala Lumpur on May 15, two days after the May 13 riots and in a state of emergency, as an example of street photography.
“By studying the Sultan, a lot of terms or labels that we use today, almost by default, were not available in earlier times. But when we are studying him from afar and keep thinking of him as just a salon photographer, we will not be able to reimagine him. I think this is a great disservice to him and why younger practitioners of street or documentary photography do not reference him,” says Zhuang, 38, in an interview in Singapore.
The shifting of labels and patchy documentation are just some of the challenges that Zhuang encountered while researching and writing this book. Part reference book, part photography review, the book documents the photographic history and practitioners of the region’s 10 member countries, from the colonial era to contemporary times.
“When I started this, I had this naive idea that there was this big black hole in literature regarding South-East Asian photography. There is a kind of hole, but there are parts of South-East Asian photography that are already well-researched. So it’s not true that there is no documentation, but that it is spotty – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. The challenge is to take all this material and piece them together,” adds Zhuang, before adding. “Personally, I don’t think it’s a challenge, I think it’s fun.”
Wearing the hats of curator, writer, photographer and educator, Singaporean Zhuang started his career as a journalist writing art reviews. In 2006, he shifted his focus to photography in South-East Asia, when Zhuang discovered that there was a lack of concise information. The more he mined for information – through oral interviews and trawling through libraries and catalogues – the more engrossed with the topic he became. The labour of love eventually snowballed into a ten-year project, culminating in this book.
By focusing on the medium’s history and development, Zhuang provides the necessary framework for us to learn and appreciate our own photographic traditions and practitioners.
“I think we need a sense of where we come from because we have a lot of material that we can use. Issues of ethics, issues of how to deal with power, issues of how to survive in the art market – our seniors have already dealt with these issues and yet we seem so willing to throw away these experiences and think that the only way to learn about human rights and civil society is from the West,” he says.
In Malaysia, for example, we learn that practitioners and enthusiasts here are highly influenced by Pictorialism, or salon photography.
Loke Wan Tho, son of business magnate, Loke Yew, was the biggest collector of salon photography in the world. He would eventually donate the collection, which included prints by Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh, to the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) of Malaysia.
In the country’s realm of art, photography is often sidelined – a common issue with this medium – with few prominent practitioners such as Yee I-Lann and Wong Hoy Cheong actively working with it for their artistic practices.
This, argues Zhuang in the book, has led to a practice of reworking or manipulating images by conceptual artists working with photography.
“In Malaysia, there is an implicit fear-of-the-snapshot shared by the contemporary art community and salon photographers,” he wrote.
That hasn’t stopped Minstrel Kuik from employing this aesthetic, producing Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily to examine her life back in Malaysia after a long period away in Taiwan and France, while her contemporary, Eiffel Chong, works in the deadpan aesthetic to convey abstract notions of life and death in everyday scenarios.
Across the causeway, Singapore had a similar start with salon photography dominating the scene, followed by photojournalism, and since the 1980s, conceptual photography. Early on, performance artists Amanda Heng and Lee Wen utilised photography in their work; for Another Woman, Heng photographs herself with her mother in an attempt at a connection and a closeness despite generational and language differences.
But photography in Singapore really came into its own at the turn of the millennium, sparking an interest in, and a proliferation of, personal work. State support and robust grassroots efforts at promoting photography have helped boost its profile in the country.
Photographers like Tay Kay Chin and Darren Soh actively pursue documentary work, while Chua Chye Teck, Sean Lee and Genevieve Chua are working with the medium in their artistic practice. Robert Zhou is one of Singapore’s most interesting artists working with photography today; his artistic persona is the fictitious Institute Of Critical Zoologists, through which he examines the relations of humans and nature with his art.
Writing about photography in South-East Asia, Zhuang has taken on a Goliath of a task and is careful to point out that the book is not an exhaustive survey. In his Indonesian section, he only covers photographic practices in Java, which he lamented in the chapter as “a glaring weakness.”
So while this may not be the definitive text to photography in South-East Asia – and you may also not agree with all of his observations – it is currently the most comprehensive in its documentation and an important springboard to further the conversation about the medium here.
“There is a lot of material scattered about. It is a long and on-going process. At this stage I think I’m only just getting started,” says Zhuang.
Zhuang had worked on the project without any funding except for a year’s grant from the Prince Claus Fund (a Dutch cultural initiative). Singapore’s NUS Press later came into the picture as publishers of the book.
“I sustained myself mainly through teaching, writing and curating photography. This is a terrible financial model of survival. Don’t follow it,” advises Zhuang.
Following on from the book, Zhuang is keen to promote South-East Asian photography and is busy preparing for several shows in the coming year.
In January, he is co-curating a retrospective of Pramuan Burusphat, one of Thailand’s pioneering contemporary photographers, in Bangkok before opening the Chiang Mai Photo Festival in February. In April, his curated work for Lumenvisum with Malaysian photographer Minstrel Kuik, will open in Hong Kong.
At the root of his relentless pursuit of this project is Zhuang’s belief in the wealth of photographic traditions and practices here in this region. He muses, “In South-East Asia, we have a long history of photography, and we have a long history of progressive or avant-garde photography. We’ve had very forward-thinking practitioners, and to be able to surface their work in this book is one of the pleasures of doing the work.”
Zhuang Wubin’s Photography In South-East Asia: A Survey is available in all good bookstores nationwide. Tan Lee Kuen loves photography, coffee and films, and is also the founder of asianpapercamera.com, an online project about photography in Asia.