Images of God: Photography in Southeast Asia

[On 31 August 2011, in conjunction with Abbas, 45 Years in Photography, I have been invited to present a lecture at the National Museum of Singapore. Here is the transcript of the presentation.]

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Thanks for coming to the talk.

I started writing about photography in 2004. Since 2006, my research focus has become clearer. As expected, there is a lack of scholarship on photography in Southeast Asia. Things are slowly changing. But we still have a long way to go. In my modest way, I have tried to map the development of photography in Southeast Asia since the 1980s.

In my research, I am interested in what I call independent photography. To put it simply, I am interested in artists who pursue non-commissioned projects. In other words, they do not start on a project to satisfy the demands of editors, collectors or galleries. The “market” may come into the picture at the end, when the work is completed, and not at the start.

As a curator, I’m interested in documentary, conceptual photography and Photoshop work. I look at artists who produce works about their own environment. In other words, I am interested in a Cambodian photographer shooting a project in Phnom Penh, rather than a Singaporean photographer working there.

This is how I have defined my research. And here is my assumption. In general, a local photographer will have more insights about his or her country. When I look at a body of work, I try to understand the photographer’s motivations and obsessions. I try to see what has guided him or her to make that work. I want to know if it tells me something interesting about the photographer or the place where he or she comes from. I contextualize the work, and see if the photographer has evolved over the years, and how the work stands out from the rest within his or her country. I try to see if photographers from the region have also done something similar.

As you know, Abbas is having a show here at the museum. And a significant part of his work is about religion. Over the years, he has shot in Southeast Asia on various occasions. That is hardly surprising. As a region, the religious diversity here is quite amazing. I speak to you as an amateur but it is fair to say that the major faiths are well entrenched in different parts of Southeast Asia, often in coexistence with folk and animist beliefs. As such, I think it is quite appropriate to share with you projects made by artists in Southeast Asia that examine issues pertaining to religion.

I will start with two projects that look somewhat similar to Abbas’ work, when they are, in fact, totally different in terms of the motivations. Abbas sees religion not as faith, but as culture. In other words, he is not inside. He is a detached observer, looking at religion critically, perhaps with a sense of scepticism.

In the case of Ng Swan Ti and Rahman Roslan, they embark on their projects, first and foremost, as believers trying to make sense of their personal faith.

Born into a Chinese Confucius family in Indonesia, Ng Swan Ti baptized during her teenage years.

Over there, religion is never a personal matter. There are many push factors for someone to pick a religion and indicate it on their ID card. The five official ones are: Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. During the precarious years of Suharto, failing to do so would imply that you were a communist.

Swan Ti says: “Many Indonesians consider religion as the most important source of identity. It is common to ask a question like “What’s your religion?’ on the first meeting.”

And so, partly because of that, people are encouraged to follow the norm and pick a religion rather than to understand it properly. Growing up, she didn’t know anything about her faith other than the obligation of going to church. She used to see religion as a matter of heaven and hell. She was quite naïve.

When she picked up photography more than a decade back, Swan Ti decided to use it to understand her religion. By visiting the Catholic communities in Java and Flores, talking to fellow believers, she learnt more about Catholicism. The photographs in Catholicism in Indonesia (2000-2005) are the by-products of that process.

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Images of God: Photography in Southeast Asia

In this sense, her work is incomplete. Often, when photographers cover religion, they reduce the subject into rituals. Or they fill their photos with symbols or exotica related to the religion. To a believer, or someone living in a non-secular country, religion is much more than that. If you intend to revisit Abbas’ show, keep this in mind and examine the way he photographs Buddhism, for instance.

As for Swan Ti, her starting point was always personal. She has documented what she has seen during her process of discovery. But she has not found a way to photograph the spiritual aspects of the religion and how it affects the believers in their daily life.

In comparison, Rahman Roslan tries to cover Islam on a more intimate basis. He is one of the few photojournalists in Malaysia who tackle difficult issues in his long-term work.

I have followed his work on Islam in Malaysia for quite awhile. As a Muslim, he finds the coverage of Islam by famous photographers, especially those who parachute into Southeast Asia to take some snaps, to be quite superficial. I quote him here: “Islam is not one plus one. You cannot reduce it into something simple.”

He started off with well composed but somewhat standard images of prayers and rituals. And he quickly expanded the scope into partisan politics.

Not surprisingly, having a personal relationship with Islam means that it is very hard for Rahman not to comment on other Muslims. I mean, the title of the work, Halal (2008-   ), is already quite revealing. The word refers not only to the prohibition of eating pork. It is used to define what is permissible under Islamic law in terms of dietary issues, clothing and conduct.

Images of God: Photography in Southeast Asia

And so, he started photographing the Muslim minorities within Malaysia. He photographed the punks who technically, with their tattoos, cannot perform the wudu to clean themselves properly before prayers. He also photographed the traditions and beliefs that once co-existed but are now under the threat of a different reading of Islam. And he visited the Obedient Wives’ Club, which attracted a lot of attention when it claimed that a religious wife should also be good in bed. And he photographed the Islamic Fashion Festival.

Images of God: Photography in Southeast Asia

But his work has become more personal in recent months. In Rahman’s words: “I want to photograph the Islam that I hear, discover and witness. I want to show the love that Muslims have in their lives.”

By that, he means photographing his family and friends, Muslims who are close to him. But whether he is willing to reveal their vulnerabilities as believers remains to be seen. It is hard not to be protective when he photographs something so close to heart.

Moving beyond these attempts at self-discovery, there are photographers in Southeast Asia who examine the social or cultural phenomenon of religion.

Like the previous photographers, Estan Cabigas started photographing Catholicism in the Philippines to understand the religion that he was born into. For a country with so many talented photojournalists, there are few who have sustained a long-term interest in Catholicism, the majority faith there. Estan is trying to. And he has been the most systematic, building up the work through smaller projects that highlight the festivities and rituals. Again, the challenge is to go beyond that, to see if he can photograph the ways Catholicism pervades daily life.

The New Cathedrals (2010-     ) is a step in the right direction.

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And the church has responded. Congregations have started moving their services into the malls, tapping into the popularity and convenience of these places. Consumer culture is changing the way religion is practised.

Today, we visit the Spanish-era cathedrals to understand the history of Catholicism in the Philippines. In future, we may have to visit the malls to do so.

Of course, the onslaught of consumerism is not limited to the Philippines. In Thailand, the consumerist heartbeat of Southeast Asia, Buddhism is being “sold” in many creative ways.

In Holy Alloy (2006-          ), Thai photographer Kamthorn Paowattanasuk visits the temples around the country, documenting the strange and ridiculous structures that have been built in recent years. For some reason, the monks of these temples think that by having monk mannequins on dolly or a dinosaur in the monastery, they can sell these temples as tourist attractions and bring in more money.

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He explains to me: “When Rama IV and Rama V introduced Western knowledge into Thailand, they adapted it with good taste. But our adaptation of foreign cultures nowadays is truly ‘post-modern’. The photographs here are meant for the Thais in future. But I wonder if they will see these structures as something classic or stupid.”

Michael Shaowanasai is even more direct. He is a performance artist who performs mainly for the camera. Often, he uses his art to challenge the boundaries of Thai society.

As we all know, Thailand prides herself as the land of Theravada Buddhism and markets the image actively in her tourism ads. In this sense, the country should be quite embarrassed by the fact that it is also known to be the place for gay farang men to pick up young Thai boys. But the government knows that these contradictory perceptions are crucial in attracting different segments of the tourist dollar.

Homosexuality had long been tolerated as a personal choice in Thailand. It is the middle-class notion of morality, borrowed ironically from the West, which turned it into a kind of sexual perversion.

In Portrait of a Man in Habits (2000), Michael challenges the hypocrisy by overlaying one image of the country onto another. And he does so by putting on female make-up and donning the saffron robe of monks.

Of course, the work angered the religious conservatives, who forced Michael to remove it from the show. Apparently, to be ordained as a monk, you have to answer some questions. One of which is: “Are you gay?” If you are, you are not fit to be ordained. As such, Michael sees the work as an attempt to address a human rights issue related to religious freedom.

It is tempting to classify his work as queer art. But that’s not true. And I quote him here: “I’m a gay man who doesn’t believe in gay rights—because we all have rights!”

Manit Sriwanichpoom is arguably the most well known photographer from Thailand. He uses photography to reflect upon socio-political issues that affect his country. Starting with the Pink Man series in 1997, he has made several works that examine Thai consumerism. Not only that, in Masters (2009), Manit looks at how the Buddhist order permits and promotes the consumption of Buddhism in Thailand.

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We have seen Kamthorn’s work on those funny temple structures earlier. Here, Manit photographs the life-size statues of old monks that are often sold for a lot of money. Of course, to revere the statues of these monks is quite contradictory to the philosophies of Buddhism. But that alone is not going to deter this lucrative business, which the temples profit from.

In the words of Singaporean curator David Teh, Manit made out-of-focus images of these statues to say that the society has “lost its spiritual compass”.

Over in Malaysia, Liew Kung Yu started experimenting with photography since the early 90s. His approach of creating large-scale montages from cheap mini-lab prints is a reaction against the dominance of Salon photography. In its current form, Salon photography is conservative, with an inclination towards pretty but empty images.

Much of his work in the 90s dealt with race and identity. Kung Yu was concerned about the cultural dislocation of the Malaysian Chinese community, which was accelerated by the information age.

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The Hungry Ghost Festival is just over. So this scene must be quite familiar to many of us. In Hungry Ghost Festival, Penang (1995), Kung Yu examines the erosion of traditions in a rather literal way. The Teochiu opera performers are seen on the same stage as the skimpily dressed singers. These pop singers are now preferred for the getai, performances hosted during the festival for the wandering spirits. Clearly, Kung Yu believes that there is a “traditional” Chinese culture that the Malaysian Chinese can seek reference. And he makes his point by creating this ironic montage of what is essentially a religious event.

To end off this presentation, I will like to talk about a work that is slightly different from the rest. The photographer here is Paul Kadarisman from Indonesia. He is born to a Muslim father and a Protestant mum. Enrolled in a Catholic school, Paul ended up being non-religious.

In 2005, he made a work titled Mohammed and Me (2005). It is a response to the media portrayal of Islam in Indonesia. As you know, a series of bombings took place in Indonesia over the last decade—in 2002 and 2005 at Bali; 2003 and 2009 at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta; and 2004, at the Australian Embassy. The international media coverage of these criminal acts created an impression that Indonesia is a “dangerous” place.

However, for those who live in Indonesia, the reality is very different.

Mohammed and Me consists of three portraits in which Paul is seen with other photographers by the name of Mohammed, including documentary photographer Mohamad Iqbal and fashion photographer-turn-curator M. Firman Ichsan. 

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Even though he is a non-believer, Paul is close to these photographers and they seem genuinely relaxed in front of the camera. What he is trying to say is that most Indonesian Muslims are not extremists, contrary to the perception created by the media.

Interestingly, when the work was shown at Noorderlicht Photo Festival, Holland, in 2006, it was represented as a statement against the iconophobia of Islam. This has never been Paul’s starting point. Furthermore, most Islamic scholars today agree that a photographic image is “merely a reflection of a living being already created by Allah”, which is entirely permissible.

Anyway, I find this incident quite ironic. Here is a work that is dealing with the misrepresentation of Islam in the media. And when it is exhibited in the West, it is further misrepresented. It tells us how misguided our perception of things can be.

In closing, what I have done here is to give a preview of the different kinds of works, which photo-artists in Southeast Asia have done in relation to the topic of religion. Some have used photography to understand their personal faith. Others have focused on the phenomenon of religion and examined the effects of consumerism, globalization and media bias on these belief systems. The range of issues and artistic approaches echoes the religious diversity here in Southeast Asia. With that, I will end off my presentation.

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