International Orange Photo Festival 2010 (Essay)

Notes from the South: New Photography from Southeast Asia (ASEAN)

[Zhuang, Wubin. “Notes from the South: New Photography from Southeast Asia.” In 2010 International Orange Photo Festival, exh. cat., Changsha: International Orange Photo Festival Committee, 2010, 51.]

During the Cold War, Southeast Asia was kept on the keep-in-view list amongst news agencies around world. The region was then at the frontline of proxy wars waged either openly or covertly. However, since the reunification of Vietnam in 1975 and the fall of Pol Pot four years later, the region has quietly slid off the radar of international media outlets.

Today, the region breathes in the shadow of China. In a way, this shift in global attention mirrors the development of photography in Asia.

Nowadays, curators and gallery owners fly into China from around the world and offer her photographers a place on the global arena. On the other hand, there is still an absence of initiatives in Southeast Asia where people can see different kinds of photography produced by local photographers within the same setting.

There are initiatives in Southeast Asia that attempt to promote the medium but they act as though the region doesn’t have autonomous “histories” of photography. If not, why do we see influential Southeast Asian photographers like Sonny Yabao (Manila), Oscar Motuloh (Jakarta), Po Po (Yangon) and Ismail Hashim (Penang) perennially snubbed at these events? Worse, some of these events confound their very preamble of having these initiatives by featuring regional photographers only in portfolio review sessions. In a way, these photo festivals “prove” to the world that Southeast Asian photographers are only good enough to be “reviewed”.

As such, perhaps it is only appropriate that we have to gather in Changsha to experience Southeast Asian photography. China certainly has the potential to be a mover in that regard. After all, the relationship that she has enjoyed with Southeast Asia over the centuries has always gone beyond economic concerns. Myopic commentators who peddle hysteria to foreign policy magazines often ignore the cultural and religious linkages that exist between the region and China.

Not only has the spice trade made some of the merchants richer, it has in fact added to the palette of south Chinese cuisine. Today, thanks to the work of historians like Claudine Salmon and Mary Somers Heidhues, we have a clearer picture of the roles played by Chinese Muslims (alongside Muslims of other ethnicities) in bringing Islam to Indonesia, and in helping to found and run those sultanates since the 15th century.

Clearly, there is no reason to doubt the potential of initiatives like this in China to act as a conduit for Southeast Asian photography, just as the Singapore International Film Festival had served as the initial platform for sixth-generation China directors not so long ago.

Within the constraints of a group show, I have tried to present a cross-section of contemporary photographic practices in Southeast Asia. It is by no means exhaustive but offers the template, for instance, to consider the works of Nge Lay (Yangon) and Lâm Hiếu Thuận (Saigon) – two very different artists addressing the medium in different ways – in the same setting. Some of the featured artists like Khvay Samnang (Phnom Penh) and Souliya Phoumivong (Vientiane) are at the start of their photographic journey, while others like Kamthorn Paowattanasuk (Bangkok) and K Azril Ismail (Kuala Lumpur) are already well exposed in their respective countries. All of them share the same passion in terms of articulating the concerns of their generation and using the medium to understand the societies where they come from. Away from the spotlight of global news conglomerates, these photographers are our intermediaries to the complexity of the region. They bring with them notes from the south.

3 July 2010