Putu Sayoga is an Indonesian photographer, born and based in Bali. Like many of his friends, he thought he was destined for a job in tourism but an opportunity to study politics in Yogyakarta and a loan of a camera changed his path in life. Self-taught and working freelance, Putu specialises in travel and documentary photography. His work has been seen in Monocle, Travel + Leisure, DestinAsian, Al Jazeera, Days Japan, and other international titles. For his personal work, he is drawn to social and political issues, especially related to land management in Bali, parts of which have been overdeveloped because of tourism.
How did you get into photography?
Around 10 years ago, a friend at university gave me an analogue camera, the Nikon FM10, asking if I wanted to try it. I said yes. I took some pictures and got very interested in photography as a tool of communication. I was studying politics at that time and found that the visual medium is more interesting than writing for me. I started to learn how to use the camera.
How did you get into photojournalism?
I was studying in Jogja (Yogyakarta) at that time and attended the Cephas Photo Forum, organised monthly by a lot of Angkor alumni to discuss photography, mostly documentary. They would invite famous photographers from Jakarta to attend and give talks. A Magnum photographer, Carl de Keyzer, has come before. I really learnt a lot from this forum, not just about photography but about stories. But I mostly learnt from the Internet, what is the photo story.
You are a self-taught photographer, what resources did you use in your early development?
I’d follow Mikko Takkunen’s (New York Times photographer and editor) photojournalism links, as well as online publications like Burn magazine. In 2010, I joined a photojournalism workshop, organised by the Bali Photo Festival and conducted by Rio Helmi. In 2013, I did a documentary photography workshop with Francesco Zizola of Noor Images, where I learnt about how to make a photo story, sequencing, and ethics in photojournalism.
After the 2010 workshop, I did my first photo story on the seaweed farmers in Nusa Penida. I tried to make a story about them. It’s difficult to find teachers here and didn’t know who to turn to. I did know that John Stanmeyer was based in Bali at that time. I met him at his exhibition at the Four Seasons in Jimbaran. Because I had already met him, I got in touch with him on Facebook and sent him my story for review. To my surprise, he replied, giving a lot of advice and was really encouraging.
What do you remember of his advice?
He said the photos were good and easy to follow but to also think about sequencing and the flow of the story. He advised to not only show photos of people working but also of their lives, that I had to enter their lives. This is a story about humans, not about working. It gave me a lot of inspiration.
I went back to Nusa Penida and tried to follow his advice. I made a portfolio, sent it to Getty Images, and they hired me as a stringer. I joined Getty in 2013, covering stories in Indonesia for them for several years. As a first stepping stone, it was great, and I made a lot of connections and contacts through my assignments. I was covering all kinds of stories, some that weren’t so interesting but worked visually.
What kind of stories are you interested in?
For my thesis in university, I wrote about the environment and space politics in Bali, about the island’s fast-changing landscape. I’m not good at writing and thought to make a photography project about it, hence The Fragile Coast, which I started in 2014. It’s still on-going.
Tourism in Bali is a two-headed beast, a curse and a blessing, and The Fragile Coast is about the uncontrolled development that is affecting Bali’s coast in the south. What are you trying to say with this project?
The changes in Bali have been dramatic. The government does not have strict regulations in place concerning land development. If you see the south coast of Bali, since the New Order, they’ve been selling land and a lot of it are owned by Jakarta elites. We are changing the land and everything without thinking of long-term consequences.
18 years ago, before I went to Jogja to study, even at the time, it was all about tourism for us living here in Bali. All of my friends went into hotel management and tourism schools. But when I went to study in Jogja, it really opened up my mind to other possibilities. I think stories about social and land issues are important for me as a Balinese. I don’t want my island to be destroyed. We need more sustainable tourism. I want to show that right now, our tourism is not sustainable, and I want to show that we have to protect our island.
The Benoa Bay reclamation project is a current issue concerning land development. What’s the current status with that?
It’s still an on-going issue. A lot of people are against the project but the government doesn’t want to get involved, even if the developers already have the permission to reclaim that piece of land. They want to build luxury villas and a theme park. It’s appealing to mass tourism. Bali sells on its cultural tourism but now with more tourists, the government wants to change that.
How did you get into studying politics?
I’ve always been interested in politics. In 1998, we had the Reformation and Indonesia became more democratic after the fall of Suharto. It was an interesting topic for me, and I decided to study it. It’s been very helpful for me, especially with doing research. It’s good for me now working as a photographer.
You’ve photographed for international travel publications such as Travel + Leisure, and DestinAsian. How did you break into the travel industry?
During the Cephas photo forums, I wanted to be a photojournalist. I made simple stories which I tried to approach the local newspapers with. I asked my friend and photographer, Michael Eko, how to go about it and he said to just submit my work. I sent my stories but never got a reply. Finally, I found a small travel magazine called Jalan-Jalan and the editor gave me the opportunity and published my work in 2010. I became a travel photographer because it was the travel magazines that were approaching me. I am still interested in social issues so I use the money from travel photography to fund my personal projects.
How did you get your start with Monocle?
It was three years ago and the magazine wanted to cover Potato Head and the new hotels here. They tried to find a photographer here in Bali and they found me through my website. In 2010, there weren’t many photographers in Indonesia with a website. The photos then may not be super good but I had a website showing my portfolio. This is another very important point for photographers, have a website. I’ve gotten a lot of assignments through my website.
What is the industry in Indonesia like for new photographers?
It is very difficult if you want to enter photojournalism here because there are many cliques, especially in Jakarta. You need to be part of the community first before you can find jobs or opportunities. Because I’m far away, I’m not connected with them. The news media in Indonesia don’t answer my emails. But Jalan-Jalan’s editor, Christian Rahadiansyah, was really great, and very open to newcomers. He gave a lot of opportunities to new photographers and a lot of them have become established photographers in Indonesia.
But thanks to the Internet, I could pitch my stories to international media and agencies, not just local ones. There is access actually. And I’ve gotten responses from those editors abroad. Even if they don’t take up the story, they reply with encouraging emails. Magdalena Herrera, the director of photography at GEO France, replied with advice. Even Stern magazine replied. For someone new in this business, these sort of encouragement is very important and encourages you not to give up and to continue working and showing work.
In Indonesia, new talents sometimes cannot rise and just fade away. I’m fortunate because I know about the Internet but every day there are new photographers that don’t know how to use the Internet or to find contacts online. Together with some other photographers, such as Rony Zakaria, Kurniadi Widodo, Made Nagi, Oscar Siagian, and Muhammad Fadli, we have a documentary workshop called Doc.Now! We started two years ago in Jogja, and we try to find, nurture and help new talent through this workshop. Ed’s note: the next session is on 4-9 December 2017 in Denpasar, Bali.
You’ve teamed up with Muhammad Fadli and Yoppy Pieter to form Arka Project. Can you tell us about it?
It’s a loose collective. We’re still working on our own projects and have no collective projects yet. Right now, we’re pooling our stories together and pitching to foreign agencies as a collective. It’s easier to enter the market. As an individual, it’s more difficult if you don’t have enough stories. With the agencies now, they seem to be more interested in quantity over quality so they can sell more and different kinds of stories. We’re still learning how we can work together as a collective.
What would you advise new photographers in Indonesia just starting out in the business?
You need to read a lot. There’s a lot of stories but I feel when I meet with the young photographers, they lack knowledge and they don’t know how to find stories. In Indonesia, there are a lot of stories, so it’s about reading, looking and finding your point of view.
You need to make connections. Angkor Photo Festival is a good place to make these connections, not only with your fellow Indonesians. In Indonesia, the industry is segregated. In Jakarta, you really need to enter the community if you want help, recommendations, or even jobs. It’s a close community. I’m like a free agent and have no connections with any groups there. It’s sad because there is talent here in Indonesia but if you’re not connected, you won’t find the support that you need.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Published on 5 November 2017.