Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey

Book Review: “Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey” by Zhuang Wubin

Photography arrived in Southeast Asia soon after its discovery in Europe in 1839, provoking contrasting reactions and developing in different ways according to the environment where it was introduced, yet having indeed an important impact in the modernisation of the region.

Photography in South East Asia: a Survey offers us the opportunity to venture on a journey through ten countries of the region. The comprehensive survey allows the reader to get acquainted with the myriad of practitioners who emerged for the use of the medium, and acknowledges the significance that photography had in the region from the colonial era to contemporary.

Zhuang Wubin, 38 years old, writer, curator, educator and artist based in Singapore, started researching on the field more than ten years ago. Driven only by his curiosity and equipped with an incredible determination, he acquired over the years an extensive knowledge of the field, but, above all, he was able to build particular relationships with a countless number of artists.

These particular encounters allowed him to gain a deep comprehension of each artist that is revealed through the intimate and individual style that distinguishes each artist’s description, and that captures the reader with personal and detailed information. The natural style of writing lightens the reading, which is nonetheless rigorous and academic.

The nation-centric approach adopted in the book and the deliberate lack of uniformity and rigid structure of each chapter, enhance the diversity in history, traditions and development of the medium in the different countries. Even though the nation-centric approach might be in contrast with today’s focus on Southeast Asia as a whole region, it facilitates a deeper understanding of each country’s response to photography, which in Southeast Asia is still strongly rooted and connected into local cultural, social and political contexts.

“In Southeast Asia, our understanding of photography is largely framed through the binary of photography versus art,” says Zhuang. A consideration, the latter, that induces also to differentiate between straight photographers and artists who use photography. This assumption forcedly implies for certain practices to be excluded from cultural discourses and for some others to be valorised.

Remarkable is the effort of this survey to include practitioners regardless their background, orientation or use of the medium. Notwithstanding the underlying cut towards photography as art, the author’s aim is to bring to surface all kind of photography and to recuperate some of the practices that these above mentioned binaries have along the years erased.

The author attempts to re-imagine the narrative of photography in South East Asia, re-contextualising some of the practices and interpreting them according to historical and social frameworks.

Besides the focus on the historical development of the medium from the colonial era to present, Zhuang doesn’t neglect to analyse, with a critical eye, new contemporary trends and artists, and to identify new trajectories that the art of photography in South East Asia is leading to in the era of digitalisation.

Photography in South East Asia, a Survey represents one of the few publications on the subject and gives us an exhaustive, detailed and well-framed view of the photographic landscape of the region, covering a void in the literature that needed to be addressed. Hopefully it will encourage further research and inspire stimulating and critical conversations on the topic.

Photography in South East Asia: a Survey by Zhuang Wubin was published in 2016 by NUS Press.

About the author(s)

Born in Italy, Marina Zuccarelli holds a master in Economic from the University of Genoa in Italy and a master in Art Management from La Salle College of the Arts. She is currently at the final stage of a PhD at Nanyang Technological university with a research on participatory art practices using photography as a medium. As a photographer she exhibited in Belgium, Switzerland, Singapore and Italy and she has been awarded at Pingyao Photography Festival. Since 2016, she conducts workshops of photography at cancer centers in Singapore and has led various participatory art projects with cancer survivors. Her research interest include participatory art, art management, photography history and art and health practices. Since August 2022 she will be based in Amsterdam.

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