In Indonesia, the development of photography has always been tied to the “social and political momentum” of the country, argues local curator Alex Supartono. In an essay for Noorderlicht Photofestival, Supartono notes that when photography first arrived in the Dutch colony, it “became a most effective tool in subjugating colonial peoples, as the spear and poisoned arrows of local resistance became no more than a symbol of the exotic trophies of the East, displayed in souvenir albums and cartes de visite”.
The curator continues: “At the same time, photography fulfilled the Dutch colonial government’s search for prestige in the West. “As proof of their civilising mission’s success, photographs ‘exposed’ the order imposed upon the jungle landscape, travelling from one World Fair to another.”
In 1917, the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam received a set of glass negatives made around 1914 from Singkep Tin Company in the Riau-Lingga archipelago, Dutch East Indies. At that time, there were more than 600 Chinese and Malay workers in the company. The 162 pictures showed the mines, factory and transport system. The donation was made in response to a call by the Royal Tropical Institute to put together a show emphasizing the prosperity of the colony. The show eventually didn’t take place because of WWI. Till today, the name or nationality of the photographer remains unknown. The photographer could even have come from Singapore, since the British colony rather than Java was the centre of entrepôt trade for the outlying islands of Dutch East Indies in those days.
The series is exceptional because of its focus on local employees. However, the content of the original captions continues to suggest an interest only in the ethnicity and function of the subjects. The style of photography is anthropological, says Janneke van Dijk, curator of the Royal Tropical Institute, in which physical attributes of the subjects are important. “I think it is implicit that the series will give an insight to the colonial system,” adds van Dijk. “Photography played an important and active role in the visualization and acceptance of the colonial system back in the Netherlands.”
(“Portrait of two Chinese Miners of the Singkep Tin Company”, from “The Singkep Tin Company”, used with permission from the Royal Tropical Institute and Noorderlicht Photofestival)