Graves of Indonesia
Graveyards get a bad rap. They’re feared as spooky. They’re avoided by the superstitious. They get top billing on Halloween, along with angry ghosts, zombies, and the occasional undead cat. (Thanks, Stephen King.)
But look at them another way, and they’re genealogy. They’re a history of both people and a place. They’re a representation of the flow of history to which we all belong. They’re us. A group in Indonesia is documenting the history of its cemeteries with an unexpectedly cheerful Instagram account. indonesia_graveyard is the work of a group of friends and a lot of contributors who visit cemeteries and graves all across Indonesia (instagram.com/indonesia_graveyard).
When I first visited the account, I was struck at how different the images were, especially for an account devoted to such a specific topic. But I shouldn’t have been; Indonesia is a diverse country with a history touched by many nations (thoughtco.com/indonesia-facts-and-history-195522).
On this Instagram account, there is a beautifully painted Chinese cemetery structure. There’s the tomb of Portuguese descendants in Indonesia. There’s even a Star of David in a cemetery accommodating multiple religions. And through all these monuments of death, there are constant reminders of life: In one photo, a cat sits curled on a monument, while in another, a chicken stands in front of a grave. Visitors ride bicycles, tend memorials, or even play chess in the cemeteries.
Some of the captions were in English, but most of them were in Indonesian. It didn’t matter; Google Translate worked for me every time.
India’s Missing History
As you see the name “Alexander Keefe,” your first thought is most likely not going be “Hero who is making photography documenting the history of India more openly available,” but that’s who he is. Keefe lived in India for several years, and even outside India, found himself drawn to Indian culture, reviewing videos posted by India’s Film Division to YouTube and downloading pictures from the Photo Division (mid-day.com/articles/tracing-the-india-that-existed-before-instagram/20697169). When the contents of the Photo Division were gutted, Keefe took a folder of his favorites and started an Instagram account, sarkari_shots (instagram.com/sarkari_shots).
When I wrote this article, there were 685 posts on this account, all black and white. The subject matter covers a vast range, from industry to everyday life to architecture to sports to dancers to sculpture to politicians. Mindful of where the images came from, each post includes the original caption as provided by the Photo Division. Sometimes Keefe goes even further and gives the backstory about a particular person or event within the image, which is great for those of us who are woefully ignorant about India’s history.
I always feel a particular resonance with projects that are clearly a passion of the creator. Keefe has a great eye for photography, and his poetic, often frustrated commentary juxtaposed with the dry descriptions from the Photo Division of India makes for a compelling read. Just go look at it already.
The idea of gender has been greatly expanded in our culture within the last 20 years. From the increasingly visible LGTBQ culture to the notion of gender to makeup for everybody, we’re a long way past pink and blue ribbons. The non-binary identity is becoming more and more visible.
And yet these are not new identities; non-binary people didn’t just show up 10 minutes ago. They’ve been in our country since the beginning, just not prevalent in the mainstream until recently. That’s one of the reasons I like the Instagram account transmascstudies (instagram.com/transmascstudies) so much; it provides not only visual studies of transmasculine people, but also the history and activism behind the trans masculine identity.
Transmasculine people are those who were born with female bodies but identify more with a masculine identity. They may or may not choose to permanently change their bodies to become male, but probably will do things to present a more masculine appearance (clothing choices, breast binding, etc.).
The transmascstudies Instagram account features photography of transmasculine people, but goes way beyond that. It also includes correspondence, news stories, activist ephemera, and art. And many of the materials are not recent; one of the images is of a French government document from 1800 giving a non-cisman permission to dress in masculine attire; another is an imagine of the Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut.
The images themselves are not organized in a way that I can see—they’re a hodgepodge, an interesting, educational hodgepodge. However, you can check out the Instagram stories at the top of the page if you want categories sets of images—categories available include 100-plus-year-old content, pin badges, and papers.
South Asian Beauty
What is beauty? We all find some things more attractive than others, but sometimes most of us can agree when we find something that is beautiful. When it comes to popular culture, however, perspectives and presentations of beauty become narrower. And when considering a place as culturally rich as Asia, some presentations of beauty may be overlooked entirely by mainstream culture.
The Instagram account southasiaarchive (instagram.com/southasiaarchive) has fewer posts than most of the other accounts mentioned in this article, but each one of them is ar resting. There are people here wearing all kinds of jewelry (one close-up image showed an ear with no less than 23 earrings) with tattoos and other body modifications. The photography is mostly of women, but there are men as well. The people shown are young and old, large and small. The LGBTQ community is represented in these images, as well as nonbinary individuals.
This account has a lot of followers, and the comments add a whole other dimension to the images. The captions with the photos are usually extensive, but some commenters will add more context or occasionally offer more resources to learn about some cultural aspect of an image.
It’s unlikely that you’ll find every image on the page in line with your definition of beauty. But it is likely an image that might be outside your realm of experience will strike you with an undeniable feeling of appreciation and quiet happiness that comes from seeing something beautiful.
South Asians Working in the Persian Gulf
When you think about other cultures and people who are far away from you, you may assume some pretty arbitrary boundaries: People from India live here, people from Pakistan live here, people from the Middle East live here, and so on. That’s not true, of course; people have been migrating and traveling and pulling up their roots since the beginning of time. The Instagram account gulfsouthasia (instagram.com/gulfsouthasia) documents the history of Indians and Pakistanis going to work in the Persian Gulf.
According to an April 25, 2019, story by Priyanka Sacheti (scroll.in/magazine/920009/on-an-instagram-account-indians-and-pakistanis-are-sharing-their-memories-of-living-in-the-gulf), this history goes back a long way; South Asians have been going to the Persian Gulf (and vice versa) for centuries. gulfsouthasia brings this history to life with identification photos, images of everyday work, and portraits of men and women who immigrated to the Persian Gulf from India.
The curator of this account, Ayesha, asks visitors to send her images of their time in the Persian Gulf and also finds images in news accounts and blogs. The result is that every image I saw has a story or narration attached to it. Some of them are everyday descriptions, some of them are tender, and others are a bit harrowing. (I’m not going to soon forget the story of the man who fell asleep driving to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, only to wake up to find his car wedged under a parked truck.)
One thing I really liked about the stories in this account were the people who came to the Persian Gulf from South Asia and found themselves loving their new homes. The happy memories, the people they met, the things they experienced. So often we see narratives of “I live here and it’s the best place . ” How wonderful to also see, “I moved there and it’s pretty great too.”
Old-School New York
Sometimes culture is a time, sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a group, and sometimes it’s all three, which is why I love the Instagram account nuevayorkinos so much (instagram.com/nuevayorkinos). It’s a time capsule of Latinx experience in what is described as “old” New York City. And the 275-plus images on this account span a great deal of time, but I saw a lot of 1970s and 1980s content, with a little edging over into the 1990s.
As with gulfsouthasia, this Instagram account actively seeks submissions. Also like gulfsouthasia, this makes for a lot of anecdotes and candid photography defining everyday life.
But unlike gulfsouthasia, nuevayorkinos gives me a stronger sense of time, perhaps because I grew up during some of the eras described (though not in New York City.) Parts of the images jumped out at me: The hair. The clothes. The graffiti. The little kid with the Nike logo.
The captions (in English, Spanish, and Portuguese) tell stories of admired parents, devoted siblings, adventure, joy, and loss. nuevayorkinos community members (the account has more than 10,000 followers) often chime in with their own perspective and admiration, or recommend that other users send in their own photos of similar topics.
Dive In to a Deeper Instagram
After visiting these Instagram accounts, you may find the more visible Instagram—the influencer Instagram, the travel Instagram, the product-driven Instagram—to be a bit shallow. And who could blame you? You’ve just skimmed over a world’s worth of people struggling to understand, love, define themselves, or just stay alive. In these small histories, one photo at a time, is the history of the world. And I think I found some perspectives I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.