Zhuang Wubin

What is Southeast Asian photography?

To answer this question, writer, curator and photographer Zhuang Wubin spent the last 10 years researching and writing about photography in this region. The result is the exhaustively researched and information-rich Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey. The book documents the history, development, and practitioners in 10 of the member countries, from the colonial era to contemporary times, and is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the photographic practices and issues in Southeast Asia.


What was the genesis of the book?

There was no plan for the book. I was travelling and curious about what was happening in terms of photography. I was first trained as a journalist, where I did two modules on photojournalism in university. When I graduated, it was during the SARS years and it was difficult to get a job. Through a series of coincidences, I started freelance writing about photography for publications. I was writing for art magazines in Singapore and overseas publications. They needed writers on photography because they were interested in what was happening in this field.

At that time, I was writing about Asia. I didn’t have a Southeast Asia focus until 2006 when I decided to focus on this region because I have an affinity to this region. I was writing about India and China, but I felt I had no real emotional connection even though I have ancestors from China and Sri Lanka. But I always felt that Southeast Asia was my home. So I started writing for publications with a more Southeast Asia-centric focus. That went on for another two years. I started putting more emphasis on my writing and started collecting information in a more systematic manner.

When I started on this, I had this naive idea that there was this big black hole in literature regarding Southeast Asian photography

Why is it important to understand the history of photography in SE Asia?

I think we need to have a sense of where we come from because without that, we are forever thinking our reference point is in the West. It’s not to say the West is wrong or that we can hide away from it. The West is already fragmented in our bodies, in our blood. You cannot remove it. And the West is not something that you should feel too pessimistic about because it allows us to open doors when we meet with other Third World scholars. For example, discussing Sontag with a Nigerian scholar can be an entry point in a discussion. We have similar experiences in terms of our struggles and Sontag is just a window, a connection. This is a simplified way of explaining things, but let’s keep it at that for now.

I think we have a lot of material that we can use. Younger practitioners can look at older ways of working and their struggles because the struggles that we face today, our seniors have had already experienced. Issues of ethics, issues of how to deal with power, issues of how to survive in the art market – they 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. But I think that’s not really useful in the long run. This will bring us into a discussion about cultural politics, which is a big and long-winded discussion that I will not go into today.


And why do you think these experiences and teachings are not passed down through the generations, as experiences should be?

There are multiple factors, but I will give just one reason here – the lack of documentation. I spoke to young Burmese photographers who have just started working during the Saffron Revolution. One thing I’m always interested to know is, how did they learn photography? So they told me that they learned from the Internet, from Magnum photographers. So I asked if they referenced any Burmese photographers, and they said no, there was no one, and they said that they were the first generation of photojournalists in the country.

I wouldn’t say that they are not right, but I would imagine in the 1950s that there would be an open space in Burma, that there would be very good photojournalists working at that time. We can already piece together some information. UNESCO had a report in 1948 about the state of media in Burma, and there were so many newspapers in Burma at that time. So there cannot be that there were no photojournalists then, but maybe not how we classify photojournalists now. It is difficult to name someone strictly as a photojournalist from that time because the idea of bylines and crediting a photographer – the photojournalist as a professional – only came about much later. I don’t know if it applies to all the countries. I call this the professionalisation of photojournalism.

And without photography labels as we know them today, you’re having to work like a detective, hunting down clues and piecing them together.

I’ll tell you a very interesting story. An old journalist in his 80s or 90s told me that during the Maria Hertogh race riots (in Singapore) in 1950, when the riots were happening, everyone was out on the streets photographing, even the amateurs. What they used to do is give the photographs away for free to the newspapers to publish, or they would do a barter. So you wouldn’t really know who is the author of the photographs. Also at that time, there wasn’t such a restricted view on photography, a lot of people did multiple things at the same time.

For example, the photographers who worked for the Vietcong during the War. Many of them were also salon photographers, so if you look and think of them merely as journalists, you only capture one side of their practice. There is a story about a photographer in South Vietnam. He became an information service photographer in the South precisely because he was a famous salon photographer. The South wanted a photographer and they picked him because he was an award-winning salon photographer. At that time, people did multiple things.


Can you tell us about your research process?

There are a couple of things that happened along the way. At the start, I wasn’t planning for a book so I was doing a lot of oral interviews and I try to document their work on my laptop. I’d ask the photographers to give me an archive of their work. I have seven large folders of artists. I started archiving all this material. It was initially based on oral histories. I didn’t do extensive lit review until I got the Prince Claus fund in 2010. The grant allowed me to sit down and start lit review. That was the time that I started looking for published information, and that was when I realised that there were certain things missing.

When I started on this, I had this naive idea that there was this big black hole in literature regarding Southeast Asian photography. There is a kind of hole, but there are parts of Southeast Asian photography that are already well-researched. For instance, colonial photography is fairly well-researched so it’s not true that there is nothing. There are also other kinds of documentation that appear in periphery to other things.

For instance, you could go through the 1980s ASEAN catalogues for the annual painting and photography exhibitions, which a lot of people don’t pay attention to because we think it is a diplomatic show and photography is on the sidelines. In the last few years, I’ve grown to understand that they are also important material. There are a lot of such material scattered about. Because photography can exist in so many forms, it can sometimes be found in art exhibition catalogues or in anthropology reports or in media sites. It is a long and on-going process. At this stage I think I’m only just getting started. Language is also another issue.

Younger practitioners can look at older ways of working and their struggles because the struggles that we face today, our seniors have had already experienced.

How do the individual countries compare in terms of collecting information?

The countries that really suffered from documentation would be Cambodia, Vietnam and to a lesser extent, Burma because of the conflict. As for the rest of the countries, there is documentation but the information is scattered.

In Singapore, our library has a very good collection. To have public access to this library solves half of my work because they have a lot of material in their collection, and I have only seen a small part of it. They also have rare books and extremely rare photobook collections, which I have not seen. You’d need special permission to see those books. But as an independent researcher, you can still walk into any library and still acquire quite a lot of information. The only problem is – and this has to do with how we think about photography and classification – if you go to the photography section of the Singapore Library, the reference section has the most complete selection of books that anyone can read. It’s only a shelf and a half, and you think maybe there’s not so much information on photography. But it is the way they catalogue photography. For example, Philip Jones Griffiths is filed under Vietnam, not photography, so unless you know the title of the photobook, or the name of the photographer, it may be hard to locate it in the library. It took me a long while to realise this.

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. Personally, I don’t think it’s a challenge, I think it’s fun.


Would it be possible to classify photography according to the country? For example, what is Malaysian photography?

If you are a Malaysian practitioner, it is likely that some of your concerns are local, and it is likely that you are influenced by people, friends, artists, fellow photographers, current events, politics and the current understanding of art and photography. It is likely that as someone local, you are influenced by all these factors. And that you have access to international trends on a larger scale.

But to say that there is a kind of Malaysian photography, you have to be very careful. Because the nature of photography is that it is an extremely flexible medium. It almost has no characteristic of its own. You can say, speed, ease of use and portability, but it can be used in any kind of context. It can be used by people who are very liberal and by people who are very conservative. Photography is very flexible because it can be used by people with different understanding of art history or people with contrasting views on politics or even of the medium itself. So it comes down to the question: What is Malaysian photography? Because it can be used in such a variety of ways, it is difficult not to generalise while answering this question.

What are some of the discoveries that you’ve come across in your research?

In Southeast 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 throughout the history. And to be able to surface their work in this book is one of the pleasures of doing the book. Many of them are already around and what we are trying to do is resurface their practices again and I hope that with the work we can capture the variety of practices.

For example, in Malaysia, studying the work of Sultan Ismail helped how I thought about photography. The Sultan was largely seen as a salon photographer. He was a Royal Photographic Society (RPS) associate, the first Malay to be admitted. But much of his production can be reimagined as street photography or as documentation. His 1969 photographs of the empty streets of Kuala Lumpur after the riots is quite a poignant piece of work. By studying the Sultan, a lot of terms or labels that we use today, almost by default, were not available in earlier times. Even if he was practising street photography, he couldn’t have gone into an association for that, because it didn’t exist, so he had to be in salon. But when we are studying him from afar and keep thinking of him as a salon photographer, we will not be able to reimagine him. And that is a great disservice to him. That’s why younger practitioners of street or documentary photography do not reference him.

Another great example is Ho Fan (in Hong Kong). He was completely inside salon photography but as he was entering the later part of his life, he was rediscovered as a master street photographer. So who invents or reinvents his career? So our intervention as writers is to point out the work of others in order to create a critical discourse.

Have you ever felt that you had bitten off more than you can chew with this project?

I don’t function that way, and didn’t think too much about it. That was not the obstacle.

How about financing for the book?

The research was entirely self-funded but NUS Press was responsible for editing and publishing the book. The only other source of funding I had was the Prince Claus Fund, which funded one year of lit review and writing. I’m very grateful for it because it was also the first recognition I had that I might be doing something useful.


Published on 23 November 2016