Picturing A City For All: Independent Photography and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Photography is a tool that has been used by many to interrogate and document life in a city. For the last five years, Zhuang Wubin has been researching and working on an upcoming book about the history of independent photography in Southeast Asia. FIVEFOOTWAY speaks to the independent researcher about the region’s photographers and how they have used it to keep their cities open.

What is independent photography?
I use this term to cut across all genres of photography. The photographer works on his or her own, and the project is initiated on his or her initiative. It can be any kind of photography, e.g. documentary, conceptual, contemporary, even photoshopped work.

But to define independent photography is not so straightforward. You might product a body of work about stateless refugees in the world. The first three works were not funded, but you eventually sold it. So when the work is sold, is it still independent? For me it is, because it is still created by you, and the selling occurs at the end.

After that, a non-governmental organisation may like the work and commission you to do something similar in a different country. I still consider this independent because it is something you initiated, and someone has simply funded you to take it further.

Why did you decide to document Southeast Asia’s independent photographers?

I just felt there was a gap, a black hole, and if nobody is going to map it, then the scene cannot grow. If nobody maps it, then people will continue to say there is no history of photography here. Even after this, people will still say what they want to say, but at least I can now say come and reference my research. You can’t come in and claim Cambodian photography only started in 2002.

What is unique about independent photography in the region?
I cannot answer it as a region. That’s the thing I hesitate to talk about because the development is not the same. D J Clark, who teaches multimedia photojournalism in China, once made a passing comment that when we talk about European photography, we’ll talk about the schools of photography, but when we go to Africa, we talk about African photography. There is no Southeast Asian photography, it’s just a convenient research label for me.

How would you begin to tell the history of independent photography in Southeast Asia?
What I’m looking at is photographers who are important even until today, and who is the oldest I can trace to? Who is the one that is influential now? So I start with 1980 because of certain photographers who started working then. 1975 would be too early because it’s the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the Khmer Rogue. I originally wanted to start in 1986 when the Marcos regime fell in the Philippines, but as I did more research, I realised a lot of the anti-Marcos photographers were already working in 1980.

What is this relationship with democracy and independent photography?
Documentary photography has a relationship with the freedom of expression. The fall of Macros in 1986 was a lifting of a kind of control for independent photographers to pursue whatever issues they want.

But it could also be conceptual art photography that is pushing the boundaries, it all depends on local conditions. In countries like Vietnam and Burma, the control of the media is way stronger than the arts, so the photojournalists are much more tame and it’s the conceptual artists who are leading the charge.

It seems the independent photographer is an activist who champions issues with his or her images? How does objectivity come into the picture, especially for the documentary photographer?
I don’t really have a problem with an activist photographer. I don’t think it’s possible for someone as a journalist to feel neutral, especially if you feel something about the issue. If you’re talking about something you’re pursuing on an independent basis, most of the time you’re quite passionate, because you’re spending your own time and you’re probably not funded.

I think objectivity is a kind of bargain a newspaper puts out with the advertisers to sell advertising dollars by convincing them they can reach out to the masses. Nobody would tell you that The New York Times is not bias, neither would they say that about the Christian Science Monitor. If even in a liberal news environment in the US you don’t expect a paper to be neutral and objective, then what can you say about the others.

How does independent photography help to create a more inclusive city?
I don’t believe it when they say photography can change the world, that’s total bullshit. Once we realise that, we can then talk about photography directly.

Inclusive is a very problematic word because photography can also divide. It is really quite neutral and depends on how you use it. What it does is to open up a space, but it is not uniform and not everyone is on the same page. But if you pursue it as an investigative tool on your environment and personal life, you can raise certain issues with your images.

For me, photography allows you to create spaces for discussion, it cannot change it. This is something Susan Sontag said 30, 40 years ago. You cannot have a photographic work for a politics that doesn’t exist. What I mean by politics is there must be a certain awareness of a issue before you can produce a work that people would link to it. It’s really difficult for photography to precede the politics.


Erik was involved in the movement to overthrow Suharto as a student in the ‘80s. When he became a young independent photographer, he began training students informally to take photographs so that they could document the fall of President Suharto when it happened. He wanted to make sure there was photographic evidence of this event, unlike the revolution in Indonesia in 1965 where there is hardly any visual archive left of the massacre that happened. Till today, he continues to have a serious program of documenting the city of Jakarta.

In 1981, he began photographing the New People’s Army, the communist of the Philippines who were part of the movement against then President Marcos. Only after the Marcos regime fell in 1986 did he manage to publish Kasama: A Collection of Photographs of the New People’s Army of the Philippines. Younger Filipino photographers today see him as the model of the fearless photojournalist, and he himself believes photography can effect change in society.

A first generation photographer who emerged after the fall of Khmer Rogue leader Pol Pot and the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in the early ‘90s. In 1999/2000s, he got hold of photographs of junior Khmer Rogue comrades and began tracking them down for his project The Victims of History: Voices of the Khmer Rogue Victims and Perpetrators. His work offers a different way of understanding this culture, arguing that the junior Khmer Rogue comrades were also victims because they were recruited when they were 12, 13 years old, and brainwashed to carry out the policies of Pol Pot as kids.

He photographed the insides of the Pudu Jail in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has since been torn down. When you look at his Pudu Jail’s Graffiti: Aesthetic Beyond the Walls, you’ll find from the pictures that race politics in Malaysia is really out of context. On the prison walls, you can see Burmese, Tamil, Mandarin and English writings on the wall, and race is not really an issue in such an environment.

In his Survivors series, Charles speaks of our false sense of security derived from the daily routine of work and rest. The picture’s characters wear masks to suggest a facade that people put on to conform to societal expectations in Singapore. They don pyjamas that point to the idea of sleepwalking. Even when the opportunity presents itself to be freed, the people in Charles’ pictures are immobilised, unable and unwilling to walk out.

He is a performance artist who performs mainly for the camera, using his work to challenge the boundaries of Thai society. In Portrait of a Man in Habits, he put on female make-up and donned the saffron robe of monks to lay bare the hypocrisy of Thailand as a land of Theravada Buddhism and also a place for gay farang men to pick up young Thai boys. Michael also sees his work as an attempt to address a human rights issue related to religious freedom, because to be ordained a monk, one cannot be gay.

Lâm Hiếu Thuận · Saigon
Unlike the North, lesser is know about South Vietnamese photography. Lâm is one of the rare few, and in his series Apartment, he photographed these government apartments in Saigon that were built before the Vietnam War. They have since been demolished and replaced by new flats like those found in Singapore. The series recorded the live of these residents in this common space, a way of life that has disappeared along with the building.

Vannaphone Sitthirath made this photo essay Growing Up in the Mekong in 2004. She followed the lives of Laotian and Cambodian children living in Vientiane, Phnom Penh and the towns bordering Thailand, which are often seen as land of opportunities. Almost all of the children are victims of exploitation and drug abuse. Some sell their blood to stay alive; others end up in Bangkok as prostitutes or beggars. Her work serves to highlight the broader issues of child trafficking and inequitable development across these borders.

A feature written for FIVEFOOTWAY magazine’s issue on EVERYONE.

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