The fall of Suharto in 1998 is generally seen as the watershed in the development of photojournalism in Indonesia. The lifting of press control created the space for new photographers to feed the demand of a “liberated” population.
While there are more photographers today, few of them actually work independently. One of them is Ng Swan Ti, a documentary photographer who contributes regularly to foreign and local publications. Apart from assignments that bring in money, Ng is also known for her long-term project on “Catholicism in Indonesia” (2000-2005).
Born into a Confucius family, the photographer was baptized as a teenager. However, Ng soon realized that she didn’t know anything about her faith apart from the obligation of going to church. Religion is never a personal matter in Indonesia. An Indonesian must select one of the five official religions – Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam – and indicate it on the identity card.
“Many Indonesians consider religion as the most important source of their identity,” explains the Indonesian Chinese photographer. “It is common here to ask a question like ‘What’s your religion?’ on the first meeting.”
Armed with questions about her faith, Ng pursued the project in Java and Flores. While her starting point is personal, the series has generated useful dialogue whenever she has shown the work. At a Catholic high school in Jakarta, a student from the photo club wondered why a Catholic man in one of Ng’s photos was wearing a peci [black velvet hat], which is often associated locally with Islam.
“Wearing the peci is related to culture instead of religion,” Ng explains.
[An Indonesian woman remembers Christ’s suffering during the Good Friday procession at Larantuka, East Flores, on March 2002. / From “Catholicism in Indonesia” (2000-2005) / Copyright Ng Swan Ti]