The power of the photographic image
Henri Cartier-Bresson's Indonesian photographs
Longread — 5 Jun 2018 — Reggie Baay
An anxious Sukarno, a guilt-stricken Dutch soldier and the mysterious smile of a young Indonesian woman: the revealing expressions captured by Henri Cartier-Bresson's camera in Indonesia in the late 1940s depict the final episode of the process toward Indonesian independence in an intriguing manner.
The photographs are on show in the exhibition The Djaya Brothers: Revolusi in the Stedelijk.
When the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) took his camera on a journey through Asia in the second half of the 1940s, he was aware that he was witnessing a pivotal point in recent world history.
It was the period just after the end of the latest world war, and a full reorganization of the relations between pre-war colonizers and colonies was taking place. According to Peter Calassi, in his book Henri Cartier Bresson: The Modern Century, Cartier-Bresson would have stated that ‘The last war changed the Far East more than any other part of the World.’ He also noted: ‘In addition to our problems at home, we are paying for our grandfathers’ failure to foresee that the colonial system was not eternal.’1
Together with the prominent photographers Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour, Cartier-Bresson had initiated Magnum Photos in 1947: a legendary photographers' collective focused on supplying (news) photography to media, galleries and museums. To this end, the Magnum Photos photographers travelled the world to document key events.
After having visited India and then China, in late 1949 Cartier-Bresson left for Indonesia in service of the collective. This country, that had been called the Dutch East Indies until the Japanese invasion in 1942, was on the verge of an important historical change. Following Japan's capitulation in 1945, a chaotic and violent period of decolonization had ensued. After a bloody guerilla and counter-guerilla war, the official transfer of power was finally to take place.
That was the moment at which Cartier-Bresson arrived on central Java. This region, with the important cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo), was the Indonesian republicans’ center of power at the time. This was where it was all going to happen, and Cartier-Bresson was to report on it with his camera.
The photographs Cartier-Bresson took depict the final episode of the tragic process toward Indonesian independence: the moment when the transfer of power is about to take place and the Dutch troops must leave the region, followed by the marching in of Indonesian troops and – symbolically important to the transfer of power and the birth of the new Republik Indonesia – Sukarno’s inauguration as the republic’s first ever president.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was the photographer of, in his own words, ‘le moment décisif’: he wanted to be present at crucial moments and capture them. He was, however, at least equally interested in the impact such moments exerted on those present. That was what he meant to show in his work: the combination of a visual and a dramatic culmination point, in both a historical and a human sense. Cartier-Bresson’s Indonesian photographs that have been included in the exhibition are wonderful and telling examples of this.
A part of the material shot in Indonesia by Cartier-Bresson appeared in the renowned American Life magazine and in the Dutch magazine De Spiegel in February 1950. These magazines featured the photograph of the parade following Sukarno’s inauguration, for example, which shows the Indonesian troops ‘swelled with pride’ (as the caption states) as they are greeted by the new president of the Republik Indonesia (ill. 1).
Or take the iconic picture of the inauguration itself, which took place on 17 December 1949 – an inauguration at which the new president Sukarno is sworn in, with the Quran at the back of his head, by prof. dr. Kusumah Atmaja (ill. 2). It is a relatively well-known photograph, one that also appeared in Life and De Spiegel at the time. When looking at this picture, at first glance we would assume the photographer to be focusing on the event itself: the defining moment at which this ceremony would establish the first Indonesian president and the Republik Indonesia at the same time, after centuries of Dutch colonial rule.
But a second look reveals that of all persons in the photograph, there is only one whose facial expression is clearly visible: that of Sukarno himself. Intriguingly, it is not an expression of satisfaction of glowing pride, as we might expect, but one of doubt and of immense insecurity, as if at this specific moment the new president were filled to the depths of his soul with the responsibilities and the enormous burden that had just come to rest on his shoulders, as well as on those of the young republic. It is wonderful that we are able to see this again in the exhibition.
While these are rather well known images, Cartier-Bresson’s other photographs in the exhibition will be lesser known or even unknown to many. In addition to moments of glory, such as a photograph in which young Indonesians triumphant parading with a Barong figure, a creature from Indonesian mythology, carrying the slogans ‘Tetap Merkeka’ (forever independent) and ‘Bersatoe’ (unity) (ill. 3), there are also images of defeat. In his captions, Cartier-Bresson speaks of ‘street scenes’: in this case, scenes that take place in Surakarta and its surroundings and are peopled by Dutch military during their undignified retreat. Once again, the same facial expression stands out in these photographs – now on the faces of those who must take their leave.
Cartier-Bresson also recorded the last day before Surakarta was to be handed over to the republic by the Dutch (ill. 4). This photograph shows a Dutch soldier in the process of leaving, not sharply dressed in uniform but (perhaps symbolically for the humiliation) wearing a rather undisciplined outfit of shorts and an open, somewhat grimy army shirt. He is accompanied by a young Indonesian woman. And again it is his facial expression that stands out. While the woman appears to be talking to him, the soldier stares straight into the camera with a frightened glance. Much can be read from his eyes: it is the uncomfortable, evasive look of someone who may be feeling caught.
All the same, Cartier-Bresson uses a rather neutral phrasing in his caption. ‘Here a Dutch soldier with his babu, he writes. ‘Babus are cooks and laundresses. They live in the same compound as the soldiers.’ What is missing here, possibly because Cartier-Bresson was unaware of the situation or because he found it improper to mention, is the information that Dutch military staff also had intercourse with these Indonesian women or lived with them outside of marriage. Did the soldier in this picture feel caught because he did not want to be depicted as the ‘losing’ party? Or because he was accompanied by a young Indonesian woman, which might reveal that he had engaged in ‘improper’ relations?
No less telling is the final photograph from the series of street scenes in the exhibition. It shows a group of Dutch military professionals in the open back of a truck, preparing to leave (ill. 5). Typical of this shot is that none of the faces are clearly shown. We only see the backs of the soldiers, not their faces, as if they have been anonymized: nameless and without identity they embark on their retreat. A young Indonesian woman is sitting between these anonymous soldiers. In the caption, Cartier-Bresson notes: ‘The speeches have been made, the Dutch flag has come down, and the Dutch soldiers and their babus (female servants) climb into their trucks and leave.’
There is more symbolism to this image. Though the young woman is sitting with her back turned toward the spectator, at the same time she is accepting a weapon that a Dutch soldier hands her from behind. This maneuver causes her face to show en profil and she seems to be smiling… As a viewer, one wonders: does she realize what kind of history she is part of? Is she aware of this dramatic moment and of that which is to follow? After all, many young Indonesian women had become involved with Dutch soldiers and were about to be abandoned at large scale. After their return to the Indonesian community they suffered awful fates. This photograph, too, reveals much more than that which surfaces at first glance.
The photographs that Henri Cartier-Bresson took in Indonesia constitute an important visual report of decisive moments in Indonesian history. At the same time they indicate the crucial value of the photographic medium as a means to not only report on current events with unparalleled speed and artistry, but to tell an engaging story in doing so. As such, these photographs offer a beautiful and valuable contribution to the exhibition The Djaya Brothers: Revolusi in the Stedelijk.
About the author
Reggie Baay (Leiden, NL, 1955) is an author and researcher. He studied at Leiden University, specializing in colonial and postcolonial history and literature. His work mainly addresses hidden aspects of the Dutch colonial past in Indonesia and its impact on the generations of today. His work has been unanimously well received by both the Dutch and the Indonesian press. He is currently working on a book about the period of decolonization in Indonesia.
1. Peter Calassi, Henri Cartier Bresson: The Modern Century, New York, 2010.