From 12 to 18 Dec 2011, I conducted a photo project workshop at Bandung, West Java. Black Man Ray and Distorted Darkroom (DD) hosted the event. Apparently, such workshops are relatively rare in Bandung.
Ten participants are selected based on their portfolio or their proposals for the workshop. Their knowledge of developing a project is varied. Some are pursuing their first or second project for the workshop. Others are looking for a different approach.
A week prior to the workshop, I started communicating with them via email to understand what they hoped to get from the workshop and their views on photography. We also talked about their proposals in greater detail.
As usual, I emphasized the importance of articulating ideas verbally or with text.
During the opening day of the workshop, I did a closed-door lecture and a public presentation at Soemardja Gallery, Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), offering an overview of the range of photographic projects done by our peers in Southeast Asia.
I find that some of the photo projects made by Southeast Asian artists are easier to understand for participants of my previous workshops in Vientiane and Surabaya. I guess there is a certain “familiarity” either in the issues that these artists explore or the approaches that they take, making their works perfect examples to highlight the sheer variety of photographic practices present in Southeast Asia.
The participants also finalized their proposals on the opening day, although several of them made changes to their ideas during the workshop. For the next five days, participants worked on their projects independently, reporting back to DD on a daily basis to show me their progress.
Clearly, my workshop methodology is highly fluid. For people who are used to receiving instructions from a know-all tutor, my approach will be disorienting. But I believe in the mutual process of working with the participants towards the creation of her or his work. Even though I have photographed in Indonesia and written about the photographies of the country, I do not assume that a particular photographic approach is more superior to another. The process of thinking and developing a project is always more important than the visuals that the participants produce. Naturally, each participant takes away different things at the end of the process—depending on how much initiative she or he has taken.
On the closing day, we started with a private critique session at Platform3, where participants shared the challenges that they faced and reflected on the weaknesses of their projects. In the ensuing public presentation, the work of each participant was first projected as a slideshow. Then, she or he would explain the work and take questions from the audience. Finally, the work would be projected again, as I shared my experiences of working with each participant.
Here are the results of the workshop.
Aditya Pratama (Bandung)
When he went out to execute the idea, Aditya soon realized that the diptychs he made meant very little beyond a more nuanced approach at landscape photography.
At that point, he decided to abandon the idea and proposed something on the Pasopati Bridge. Several months prior to my workshop, he made black-and-white analogue photos of the residential area under the bridge. Apparently, his relatives used to live in the area before the bridge was constructed several years back. In his childhood, Aditya would visit the area and he remembers it as a bright and sunny place. When he returned more recently to photograph the place, he found it to be dark and gloomy, as the bridge has blocked out the sunlight and displaced many families.
I found his account fascinating and suggested that he should present his “memories” of the area using photography. Our initial idea was to talk to the residents and see if they had old photos of “happier” days before the bridge was constructed. We thought of taking portraits of these residents and creating diptychs with their old photos.
Apparently, Aditya had never talked to the residents when he shot in the area previously. He is, by nature, shy and reserved. His new proposal forced him to open up and approach strangers. As it turns out, his belief that the bridge construction has made things worse is not one that is shared by all the residents. While there are residents who are unhappy with the construction, the root of their discontent has more to do with the incompetence of the local administration. There are many residents who felt that the construction has brought a positive impact. They are now shielded from the sun and the area under the bridge has become a communal, public space for residents to hang out and relax.
Frustrated with himself and possibly with me, he announced he would be leaving the workshop. However, after speaking to Henrycus, a senior photographer in Bandung and his informal mentor, Aditya decided to persist.
Without telling me what he would do, Aditya took his black-and-white prints and returned to the same spots under Pasopati Bridge and re-photographed these places in digital colour while holding up the corresponding print. In this way, he quite literally references his change of perception. Unlike other artists who used a similar approach to reference the passing of time, Aditya is, in part, recording the changes (in perception and in his understanding of photography) within himself.
He also made additional colour photos under the bridge—again, in the “tradition” of street photography. However, as he has overcome his shyness, this new set of photographs shows a greater sense of comfort with his subjects.
In this edit, I have incorporated the three sets of photographs to reference the changes that Aditya has gone through during the workshop.
Lim Hui Xian (Singapore)
We talked about the pitfall of doing a stereotypical work, aestheticizing the landscape of the dumpsite and reducing the scavengers into anonymous and bony people stuck in the poverty trap. I reminded her that these are people with lives beyond the dumpsite. They have families and friends. But neither did we want to romanticize their condition. It will not be easy to achieve that balance.
When she first arrived at the dumpsite, it was quite different from what she pictured in mind. The landfill is no longer in use. Human activity is quite scattered. There aren’t that many collectors scrimmaging for garbage. I guess the dumpsite will not be attractive to Sebastião Salgado.
With the info provided by fellow workshop participant Arif Setiawan, Hui Xian found a section of the dumpsite, which is now used as a “plantation” to grow corn. The “discovery” reminded us again that there is a positive entry point into this seemingly bleak story.
The main problem was for Hui Xian to overcome inertia and her shyness in approaching strangers. At the end of the workshop, she spoke of her gratitude to the two collectors who allowed her to photograph their lives. But her persistence, which I had to cajole throughout the workshop, made a difference as well.
I also encouraged Hui Xian to study the details of the rubbish at the dumpsite. It is our very modest attempt to experiment with the narrative of the story. In the end, those images helped to connect her portraits of the two collectors. According to Hui Xian, shooting those photos brought her closer to the story because she realized that the things we discard as “junk” are not that different in Bandung and Singapore.
Arif Setiawan (Bandung)
Arif was initially drawn to the corn “plantation” at the Leuwigajah dumpsite. Likewise, searching for a positive spin to the story, he talked about the fact that garbage can be turned into something useful.
His previous attempt at a photo project was in 2007, when he made an essay on two transgender Indonesians striving to earn a living in Bandung. Naturally, he thought of adopting a “documentary” approach in his proposal for my workshop.
But I reminded him that such an approach would only tell us the life of the “plantation” owner. It cannot address the idea that he proposed.
We decided to look for people who create new and beautiful objects from rubbish and to photograph these “inventions”. Referencing the visuals of a product catalogue, Arif has been able to bring across his idea in a distinctive way.
I also made a new edit for his previous work on the transgender Indonesians. During the process, I forced Arif to articulate his interest on their lives. By doing so, I raised many ethical issues with him. Like most photographers, he is drawn to the story because they “look” queer. I think he came out of the editing process more sensitive to his responsibilities as a photographer.
Iqbal Muhammad Noorman (Bandung)
His initial proposal was to take long-exposure photographs of the congestion and to make portraits of the Angkot passengers. I pressed Iqbal to justify how such pictures would explain the issue. We would probably get visually stunning images of the congestion. How would that guide the audience to a better understanding of the traffic problem? How would the passenger portraits do likewise?
Even for accomplished photographers, the approaches that they adopt are often guided by aesthetics (even though they may not be willing to admit it) rather than a deliberation on how their pictures engage the issue-at-hand.
Once we decided on the issue of infrastructure mismanagement, Iqbal came up with the idea of photographing the Angkot stops, which have not been properly utilized. Not only do the Angkot stop wherever they want, these shelters are often misused in many ways. He realized that, by merely focusing on these Angkot stops, he would have a subtle way of directing his viewers to the root of the issue.
Iqbal probably thought it would be fairly straightforward to photograph these structures. However, as we looked through his photographs everyday, Iqbal became more sensitive to the light condition and the juxtaposition of objects and people in each frame.
I helped to crop his images into square format and to finalize the edit.
Doly Harahap (Bandung)
This is one of Doly’s first attempts at creating a photo project. I encouraged him to be persistent, knowing very well that, with the consent of the father, Doly would eventually get the nod from the mother. True enough, she agreed. But Doly was not allowed to be in the house with her, if the husband was not around.
Secondly, we re-examined Doly’s interest in the subject. He is interested in how the blind make sense of the world and how the family goes through their daily routine. He is also intrigued by the idea that the son has become the eyes of the family. I gave specific instructions on how to turn his ideas into visuals. And I pointed out the moments he should look for in order to tell this intimate story without the “intervention” of captions.
Doly proved to be a highly proficient photographer on his Rolleicord. He would bring back most of the photos that we talked about.
The last photo in this edit is a deliberate addition of mine. Doly and I talked about the possibility of giving the father a camera and asking him to take pictures of what he felt interesting. It is an imperfect way of visualizing how he would experience his environment. Here, I am referencing the work of Malaysian photographer Gillian Tan, who collaborated with blind masseur Leong Siak Yin by giving him a camera to produce Insight (2004-05)—an insider’s “view” of his life in Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a similar collaboration in Bandung.
Guna Dwi (Bandung)
Previously, Guna had shot a small essay on children in an orphanage. Apparently, he has an interest in kids. His proposal was an extension of that interest. He stressed that the boy is not from the lowest echelon of society. Instead, Guna is drawn to his sense of independence and his desire to help out the family.
At first, Guna imagined that he would only have to shoot during the rain. But that would only capture the boy at work. Guna would miss out on his interaction with his fellow “umbrella kids”, and his life in school and at home.
He ran into another problem towards the end of the workshop when he tried to visit the boy’s family. The boy declined, saying that his family was unaware of the shoot, which made us realize that this could turn into an ethical issue. From a moral standpoint, the boy’s parents have the right to forbid Guna’s photographs from being used, as the kid is only a minor. Guna should have sought permission from the boy’s parents before the shoot. At the very least, he should have asked the kid to inform his parents beforehand. On the last day of the workshop before the public presentation, Guna went to see the boy’s family to explain the purpose of his shoot. Thankfully, the family gave their blessings in the end.
Guna’s choice of camera was partially forced upon him due to the weather. And yet, the snapshot-quality of his photographs seems to fit perfectly with the sense of camaraderie and adventure among these “umbrella kids”.
Vembri Waluyas (Yogyakarta)
So we spent time talking over the issues, trying to pick something that we could address within the constraints of the workshop. We decided on the issue of communication technology, which he viewed with a sense of irony. He spoke of photographing people hanging out in the malls with friends, not speaking to one another but engrossed totally in their Blackberry phones. He hoped to say that technology has made people more alienated.
I was not keen. Such an approach would make this a campaign rather than a photo project. His desire to convey his scepticism meant that he needed the “meaning” of his project to be fixed. But photographic meaning can never be thoroughly cemented. I can easily argue that these people, seemingly engrossed in their phones, are in fact tapping into technology to keep in touch with family members and friends. Viewers do not have to see his work with the same sense of scepticism.
It is better to be more open-ended. We decided to look at how mobile technology has become an object of consumption. Vembri juxtaposed pamphlets advertising new phones with old mobile phones that he found at the second-hand market. The work becomes a commentary on our relationship with technology and how advertising has shaped our faith in these gadgets.
During the presentation, the audience response reminded Vembri that some of his juxtapositions are more obvious than others. In this respect, he needs to be more sensitive.
Tandia Bambang (Bandung)
I know he is not a bleak man. Like many of us, Tandia is just frustrated by expectations of the society and the people around him. For instance, he talked about his parents hoping for a daughter prior to his birth. Growing up, he could sense their disappointment. Even now, his father still says that Tandia’s fingers are like those of a woman. Subconsciously, his parents continue to project their hopes for a daughter on him. While there is no issue of gender confusion, Tandia has had to live with such expectations over the years.
In the workshop, I urged him to externalize the imageries within himself using the medium of photography. He decided to photograph himself at home, in the environment where he is most familiar. We drew up specific images to shoot, based on his recollections and anecdotes. But I also encouraged him to improvise and to create photographs based on his feelings during the shooting process.
Prior to the workshop, Tandia used to think that he must go to a faraway place in order to make a photo project. This is a common notion among Indonesian photographers. The workshop made him realize that it is possible to journey within to create a compelling body of work.
Okky Ardya (Jakarta)
Okky Ardya is a writer interested in photography. She is drawn to the medium for personal reasons. For years, she has had a turbulent relationship with her dad. Only when she started photographing her family a few years back has the relationship become less tense. The act of photography reminded her of mortality and the passing of time, changing the way she views her father. When she made those photos, Okky had no concept in mind. She just felt compelled to capture the important moments in life.
Instead of shooting new images, we decided to use the snapshots she made, together with old photos in her family albums taken at different studios or by other family members, to create a project that articulates Okky’s relationship with her family.
We spent a lot of time selecting the photos. Okky talked about each of them in great detail. If she didn’t know the context, she would “interview” her parents for more information. The process of digging up stories behind the snapshots provided her the opportunity to know her family better. I encouraged her to look at the photos, not only as records of her family life, but also as material artefacts that have been touched or “captioned” by other family members.
Inspired by Rinko Kawauchi’s edit in Cui Cui, we experimented with a non-linear and non-chronological narrative. At times, different photos are put together due to visual concerns. In other instances, we toyed with minor narratives within the edit.
Philipp Aldrup (Germany / Singapore)
Philipp is the most experienced participant of my workshop, especially in terms of crafting a photo project. His practice revolves around manmade spaces and he enjoys framing order in the midst of urban chaos.
He started the workshop with an open mind, allowing me to nudge him out of his comfort zone. With very little idea of Bandung in her specifics, Philipp is drawn to the area where the countryside meets the city. Where does the city start and where does it end?
At the same time, as a foreign resident in Singapore for the last seven years, he is always not at home. The feeling of being an outsider and a tourist is even more acute in Bandung. But a tourist would not, logically speaking, visit these in-between places. And yet, for those who work and live in these areas, this is Bandung.
And so, for five days straight, Philipp walked through Baros, Soreang and Jalan Dago Giri, responding to the environment and producing hundreds of photographs. From his images, it is obvious that change is coming to these outlying areas of Bandung. But we had no interest to preach, to tell the Indonesians this is right or that is wrong. This is what I have kept in mind when I made Philipp’s edit, splitting his work into Side A (Baros and Soreang) and Side B (Jalan Dago Giri).
Here are some documentation photographs of the workshop, taken by Gyaista Sampurno and Kevin Lee.