Demanding Images

Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation, and the Image-Event in Indonesia, by Karen Strassler (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Megan Brankley Abbas, Colgate University

On May 21, 1998, Suharto walked down a ceremonial red carpet, stepped up to a solitary microphone, and announced his immediate resignation as President of Indonesia. His speech, while brief and lacking in rhetorical flourish, heralded the end of thirty-two years of military authoritarianism and ushered in a new era of democratic reforms – known as Reformasi in Indonesian. In the two decades since Suharto’s resignation, scholars have produced a flood of books and articles on the state of Indonesian democracy. They have examined the painful legacy of Cold War-era human rights abuses, the persistence of crony capitalism, and especially the contested role of Islam in post-Suharto Indonesia. While recognizing the importance of these issues, Karen Strassler’s new book challenges us to look beyond these established lines of analysis in order to see and contemplate the very images that dominate Indonesian politics in the 21st century. Looking at these images – the book includes many fantastic and thought-provoking color images – provides fresh insights into Indonesian anxieties about transparency, visuality, and the power of media.  

In Demanding Images, Strassler traces how a series of popular images, ranging from the face of the 50,000 rupiah note to celebrity sex tapes, reverberate through the complex and fractured Indonesian public sphere in diverse and unpredictable ways. The book contains five detailed and fascinating case studies that, taken together, re-conceptualize images as events rather than as static objects. This focus on the “image-event” enables Strassler to de-emphasize conventional concerns about an image’s origins, its author’s intentions, and the initial reception by its intended audience and to highlight instead “the mediating processes by which images move and multiply and, as they do, generate and remake environments for thought and action” (p. 15). In other words, Strassler is less interested in an image’s production than its many reproductions as bumper stickers, glossy tabloid photos, or street art. She insists that this analytical shift is necessary to appreciate the changing nature of the Indonesian public sphere. Specifically, Suharto’s downfall signaled the demise of a state-mediated public sphere in which it was possible to produce stable images and to control their circulation. Democratic reforms and new media technologies have, in contrast, empowered Indonesians of various political persuasions and social classes to re-produce images for broader consumption, to demand and interrogate visual evidence, and to re-purpose images for their own, often satirical or aspirational, ends. Strassler argues that these image-events represent a significant new mode of political agency and that they moreover reveal the chimeric nature of pursuing transparency, authenticity, or documentary truth in post-authoritarian Indonesia.

Strassler demonstrates the analytical range of her methodology in the book’s two strongest chapters. Chapter Two interrogates public debates that took shape after the May 1998 rapes of Chinese-Indonesian women. Strassler argues that, thanks to the arresting images of student protests against Suharto that circulated widely in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “the photograph appeared as a fetish endowed with the power to compel recognition and authenticate historical truth” (p. 74). This conflation of transparency with public visibility created an impossible situation for rape survivors and their advocates. Survivors sought anonymity to protect themselves from harsh public scrutiny, potentially violent reprisals, and the possibility that photographs or even vivid descriptions of the rapes would be construed as pornography in the media. The resulting public debates became an “image-event” without the requisite images, thereby robbing the survivors of both public recognition and political accountability. Chapter Four, in turn, examines the transformation of an esoteric Jakarta-based art exhibit on urban culture into a national “image-event.” Despite its origins in an elite Jakarta gallery, the exhibit drew a wider audience because it displayed partially nude photographs of an Indonesian soap opera star. As a result, celebrity magazines and Islamist protestors alike rebranded the piece of high art as pornography, giving rise to yet another celebrity sex scandal. Strassler expertly tells the story of this image-event in order to underscore how artistic intent can be lost when images are selectively re-produced and re-circulated in a “fragmented, heterogeneous public sphere” (p. 136). Despite their clear differences, these two cases both reveal the extent to which images have become a primary medium for political engagement and contestation in contemporary Indonesia.    

Whether writing about sexual violence or supposedly pornographic art exhibits, Strassler implores us to take images seriously as “a pervasive mode by which people enact their political agency” (p. 9). She describes artistic and political campaigns’ efforts to re-design the face of the 50,000 rupiah note as “potent challenge[s] to official authority” (p. 62) and interprets crowd selfies at election rallies as a step towards political transparency. These arguments are generally persuasive, but the book tends to side-step critiques that these re-mediated images function as mere spectacles that distract from more tangible and structural political change. Strassler does, at points, hint at this more cynical possibility. In Chapter Three, she writes about the “banalization” of exposure scandals (p. 102), and, in the Conclusion, she concedes that President Joko Widodo’s selfie-obsessed supporters are engaged in a neo-liberal rather than a radical social revolution. Yet, the book is too quick to dismiss these more critical interpretations and thus misses some opportunities for further theorizing about image-events. For example, do image-events have to represent either a new mode of political agency or an empty distraction? Should we perhaps consider participation in spectacles as its own form of political agency? Is it possible, or even desirable, to draw a firm line between images as political engagement and images as crass entertainment? What constitutes political agency anyways? Do agentic citizens have to impede corruption, or can they merely mock corrupt officials in clever and widely circulated memes? Strassler’s book certainly raises these questions, but it stops just short of providing satisfying answers regarding how image-events connect to and potentially complicate more traditional ideas about political agency.  

Overall, Strassler’s Demanding Images encourages readers to adopt a valuable new perspective on post-authoritarian Indonesian politics. Her meticulous research demonstrates that we cannot understand the state of Indonesian democracy at the dawn of the 21st century without reckoning with recurring debates over transparency, truth versus falsehood, and public visibility sparked by a wide range of circulating images. Indeed, Strassler’s work helps us see that these are not only Indonesian concerns but that they represent larger anxieties about the relationship between new media and democracy across the globe.