Title: Interesting Photos of Sumatra and Thailand in the 1930s

Year: 1934

Location: Sumatra

Source: CU Boulder archives

For my image analysis assignment, I chose the image to the right picturing a European woman holding the hands of an orangutan while posing for a photo. The details that came with the photo stated that a European couple captured 180 photos during their travels through Sumatra and Bangkok in 1934.  Based on the wildlife species present in the photo it seems to have been taken in Sumatra, as orangutans are native to the regions of Sumatra, not Bangkok. 

The time period and history of when this photo was taken hold important relevance to the context. In 1934 Sumatra was part of the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch East Indies was a colony of the Netherlands that encompassed present-day Indonesia. The colony was ruled by the Dutch government through a governor-general who had ultimate authority over the colony. The Dutch East Indies was a colonial power described as “ an increasingly effective system of exploitation” that was heavily structured around the exploitation of the colony’s natural resources such as agriculture and mining. One article titled “The Culture System” talks about the rule of the Dutch in Indonesia from start to finish. The article talks about how the Dutch wanted to make Indonesia “self-supporting through exports”, which was not done without exploitation. In Sumatra specifically, crops were grown for coffee, tea, and rubber for export. The exploitation of these resources was often carried out through forced labor and other forms including the use of indentured labor and debt bondage. Furthermore, the Dutch commonly imposed their own culture and values on the colony, detrimental to the local traditions and customs. The adoption of Western education, language, and religion was encouraged, creating resentment among many Indonesians. This period of Dutch colonization and rule led to resistance and uprisings calling for independence and self-rule. 

During this time period, marked by a period of oppression and exploitation of Sumatra citizens, European tourism was rising for the exotic culture, natural beauty, and cheap prices. European tourists were often encouraged to visit Sumatra as “colonialists saw new territories as places with unlimited resources to exploit, with little consideration for long-term impacts”.  Tourism during this time period brought along many economic benefits to the colony. However, on the other hand, it lead to more oppression and exploitation of the native people. Development of tourism infrastructure such as construction and transport relied on forced labor. On top of this, the colonial power dynamic between the Dutch and the Indonesian people was reinforced as “The Dutch colonial government imposed a strict social hierarchy that placed themselves and other Europeans at the top”.  To Europeans, this place was marketed as one of exoticism and mystique, but this only worked to obscure the darker aspects of Dutch rule, which were rooted in the exploitation and oppression of the Indonesian people. 

The history of the ruling in Indonesia as it was colonized by the Dutch and the European tourism that was brought along with it are highlighted in this image. To begin, the image highlights the colonial mindset that was prevalent in Europe during this time period where Europeans viewed other cultures as exotic. In an article titled “Asia in the Eyes of Europe”, it details Europeans’ view on Asia as a whole as well as Indonesia. The article talks about how Europeans were initially attracted to Indonesia because they viewed it as “exotic” and wanted access to the many spices the land produced. The orangutans are a natural wildlife species in Sumatra, which is quite rare. For Europeans during this time period, the wildlife of Sumatra became fascinating. The Dutch rule of Indonesia sought economic gains on the natural resources of Indonesia, including wildlife. So, while this photo may come across as harmless or even cute, it is important to note the background of this image. Orangutans live deep in the rainforest, not in bordering towns. In this photo the background is obscure, but the tourist seems to be on the outskirts of a potential rainforest surrounded by small houses or huts. It is likely that orangutans’ natural habitats were destroyed or disrupted for the purpose of European tourism and the potential economic gain that came with it. On top of this, the woman in the photo appears to be smiling, while the orangutan is sluggish and seemingly calm. It is atypical for wild orangutans to be this time, and okay with human interaction, leading to the assumption that the orangutan was under some sort of sedation for this photo opp. The photo of the European tourist emphasizes the fascination of Sumatra culture by Westerners and the desire for them to document their experiences through photography. In addition, the photo further reinforces the historical context of Sumatra being exploited for its natural resources and reflects the complex power dynamics present during this time period, particularly within the wildlife. 

In 1945, Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands. Tourism remains an important part of Indonesia’s country, however, it is no longer through the lens of the Dutch colonial experience. The exploitation of natural resources did not cease to exist as Indonesia uses its diverse range of natural resources for economic gain. As detailed in an article titled “The Future of Principles of Sustainability Economy in Indonesia”, in recent years, there have been concerns about the negative impact of tourism on Indonesia’s natural environment, and the government has taken steps to promote sustainable tourism. 





The Future of Principles of Sustainability Economy in Indonesia

Shared By: Liv Thramann
Source: CU Boulder Archives
Image Alt Text: European women posing with an orangutan in Sumatra.

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