I get very excited when I come across a really good history book. Don't get me wrong, I think there are many well-researched, well-written, very credible history books out there. But let's face it, many of them are just downright boring. It’s not very often that you come across a history book that is not solidly researched, but also engaging and (dare I say it?) fun to read. Now that is rare, particularly among books that are written from a purely academic perspective. That is why I really loved Karen Strassler's Refracted Visions: Popular photography and national modernity in Java (2010).
Strassler’s book grew out of her 2003 thesis from the University of Michigan. Being a history scholar who specialises in the history of photography, she looked at the development popular photography in Java from the early 20th century to the post-Suharto era (that’s today, for those of you not so acquainted with Indonesia).
Strassler divided her chapters based on the many forms of popular photography that exist in various layers of Javanese society. From posed studio photographs to journalistic photos during the 1998 student protests, Strassler linked photography's different uses in 20th century Indonesia to the nation's emerging national ideology and embrace of modernity. This was all done to illustrate her main point that ordinary individuals utilised photography to literally 'picture themselves' as whoever and wherever they want to be. In the case of Strassler's informers, photography helped them imagine themselves as citizens of the burgeoning Indonesian nation and modern global subjects.
Now, I did promise you that this book is not boring, and it's really not. And I'm not just saying this because I'm a bit of an Indonesian studies (and history, and photography) geek. To me, the book's main strength lies not in Strassler's theory work or meticulous documentation of events, but in her sensitive - and at times touching - storytelling. Strassler personalised every single point of analysis to an individual's story, and this makes the historical case studies relatable. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to a good history book, at least for this reader.
Although the book has a very specific scope, Strassler's writing style made it easy for the reader to recognise the underlying universal theme; that we all constantly look for new ways to imagine and portray ourselves. Just think of your last Facebook photo update and I'm sure you'll agree.
I've written a more formal review of the book for Inside Indonesia that you can find here.
While I'm at it, you can also find other Indonesia related articles that I've written for Inside Indonesia here and here.