There is to date only a limited scholarship on photographic sources from the Dutch military actions during Indonesian’s War of Independence (1945-9), and what exists almost entirely neglects perhaps the largest component of the archives: Dutch soldiers’ amateur photographs. A small set of these rose to public prominence in 2012, when photographs showing summary executions of Indonesian prisoners were widely published in Dutch news outlets. The media distribution of these photographs has arguably set the parameters for debates on what the public can and should know (from images) about how the Netherlands fought its last colonial war in Indonesia, and how we can know it. Debates about the content of amateur soldiers’ photographs turn on the burdens of proof that images are vested with in debates about extreme violence in the war, in two ways. The first has to do with the nature of photographs as historical evidence per se. The second concerns the historical questions we ask of photographs, and the political work they are made to perform as post/colonial archives.
I contend that a narrow range of photographs have borne an anomalously weighty burden of proof to substantiate the nature and limits of extreme violence in the Indonesian War of Independence, one that is brittle and difficult to sustain unless we begin to broaden the focus of historical investigations into photographic archives using methods and approaches that I will detail in this paper. I also examine what it will mean for Indonesians to look at photographs of themselves as part of a history of an independent nation born not just in anti-colonial but fratricidal violence. What will it mean for present-day Indonesians to see their ancestors as perpetrators as well as victims of violence, and importantly, as occupants of the ambiguous categories between both ends of this spectrum? What will be the ethics of looking at these photographs, and who will they belong to?
Susie Protschky is a senior lecturer in Modern History at Monash University. She researches on colonialism and visual culture, and her current project is on disaster, human suffering and photography in colonial Indonesia. She holds the Tholenaar van Raalte Fellowship in Photography at the Research Centre for Material Culture and will shortly commence a Brill Fellowship at Leiden University Library.
Photo: ‘Cleansing action on the way to Piyungan, 26 April 1949’. Kossen Collection, BC594, Image Bank WWII, NIOD, Amsterdam.