Tholenaar van Raalte Fellow | 2021 - 2022

Karen Strassler

Karen Strassler is the Tholenaar van Raalte Fellow for 2021-2022. 


Karen Strassler is a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on the social lives and political work of images. She teaches at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and received her PhD from the University of Michigan. At the broadest level her work explores the relationship between visuality and political imaginaries, but always through a grounded, ethnographic approach that traces how concrete images and image-practices shape and intervene in the visual field, opening towards new political horizons and subjectivities.

Her first book, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java (2010) examined the role of everyday photographic practices in the making of Indonesian subjects, spaces, and temporalities. The book was awarded the Gregory Bateson Prize for Cultural Anthropology, the Harry J. Benda Prize for Southeast Asian Studies, and the John Collier Prize for Visual Anthropology. Her recent book, Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation and the Image Event in Indonesia (2020), is an exploration of the ways that public images contoured the political field during a tumultuous time of democratic transition and technological transformation. It is also a study of how, within today’s complexly mediated public spheres, ludic and personalized images increasingly compete with the documentary images that once assumed authority in public claims-making and truth-telling. The book argues that political processes today are shaped by the growing eventfulness of images, as people increasingly participate politically by producing, altering, circulating, and scrutinizing images. More recently, she has turned her attention to histories of violence, contemporary art, and the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia.

Research at the RCMC

As a Research Fellow, Strassler will be conducting research on colonial-era photography and other images of ethnic Chinese in the Indonesian archipelago as part of a larger project on “Seeing/Unseeing the ‘Chinese’ in Indonesia.” This project, which will draw on both archival and ethnographic research, explores the role of images in the making of the ethnic Chinese as an apparently distinct, racialized group from the colonial period to the present. How has “Chineseness” been rendered visible in ways that enable various kinds of harm, from stigmatizing stereotypes, to bureaucratic forms of discrimination, to overt physical violence? What kinds of invisibilities and active forms of un-seeing accompany these forms of visibility? How do ethnic Chinese themselves work within and against dominant racializing frames through their own management of appearances? At the Research Center for Material Culture, Strassler will look at colonial era representations of the ethnic Chinese in popular commercial portrait and landscape images (cartes de visites and postcards), as well as amateur and professional ethnographic and documentary photographs of Chinese temples, neighborhoods, festivals, and funerals. These images, mostly made by Europeans and others outside the Chinese community, will be examined against those made and commissioned by ethnic Chinese themselves as they fashioned themselves in both intimate family records (home movies, family albums, and so on) and more public-oriented representations. Through a study of these images she hopes to contribute to theorizations of racialization and the politics of visibility while also offering a close analysis of the visual mediation of Chineseness in Indonesia.