I have been living in Indonesia all my life – I am still discovering things, and still amazed at the things that exist here in my country.
Rony Zakaria is an Indonesian photographer, based in Jakarta. The roving photographer works on stories for international publications such as the New York Times and National Geographic Indonesia, while pursuing self-funded personal projects. His most epic work to date is Men, Mountains and the Sea, an evocative series that explores the relationship Indonesians have with the two main natural features of their vast archipelago. The project has won the Roberto Del Carlo Photolux Award 2015, and is due to be published as a book.
Can you tell us about your beginnings in photography? Why did you make the switch after a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science? What attracted you to photojournalism?
I got my first camera, a digital pocket camera, from my mother when I was 19. At that time, I had no intention to become a photographer. I was just using the camera as a tool to document my friends and my holidays. While studying, I also worked in a computer laboratory at my university as a teaching assistant and R&D staff. In my spare time, after class and after work, I would browse through photography tutorials. One day, it just so happened that I saw the work of documentary photographers like Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey and Sebastiao Salgado. I was amazed that photographs can be so moving and so beautiful. So I Googled for photojournalism classes in Jakarta, and I enrolled in one.
It isn’t about the money, it’s about how you want to live your life
You studied photojournalism at Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara, what was the experience like and how did that help you in your work?
I learnt photography with digital technology so it was a fast learning curve for me technically, with no comparison to film because I never experience it. But I understood that with photojournalism it’s more than just technique. I wanted to learn how the industry works, how do you get in and how do you really work in the field, among people. The class at Antara also connected me with some people that would help me to begin my career as a photographer.
When you first started on Men, Mountains and the Sea, did you know how you wanted to present the series?
I had just come back from a workshop for young Asian photographers at Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia in 2007. It was such a tremendous experience for me and it boosted my confidence that I could do something in my country as a photographer. So I bought a train ticket, contacted a friend and went to a city called Jogjakarta. It all started from there. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to shoot. But I have always been amazed by the mountains and the sea – Jogjakarta has both, so I went there.
What was your approach to the subject? How long did you work on this project?
As it’s a documentary project, I will research the place I want to go – if the place makes sense, if it is interesting visually or if it is contextually relevant to the project. But on the other hand, it is also based on my own personal feelings. Sometimes I go to a location and it ticks all the right boxes to be included in the project, but when I’m finally there, photographing, I don’t feel anything good, I don’t enjoy it. All the photographs are from places that I feel good to be at in the first place – places that I am curious about as a documentary photographer and also as a person. It is when I feel that kind of way that I will be given a moment to be photographed.
I do this project on and off because I use my own money for it. When there is a place I want to photograph and I have saved enough money, I will go. So it takes quite some time to photograph. The project started in 2008 and I haven’t finished it yet. I am still curious to see several more things and places.
What has working on this series taught you about your country, and the significance of its landscape on the people?
That it is diverse and big. People like to summarise and generalise everything, because it makes us think that you can understand all, that you get it, that you’re not stupid. You just can’t. First thing that come out of people when they think of Indonesia is it’s the largest Muslim population in the world. Besides that? What else? I have been living in Indonesia all my life and I am still discovering things and still amazed at the things that exist here in my own country.
I have seen ways of life that a lot of people, educated people, may judge “barbaric” or very Stone Age. When I was living with them and documenting this special way of life, I began to understand more and it has taught me to be less judgemental. When I was younger, my goal is to be smarter but I think now, it will be more useful to understand things more. I accept that I will not be able to understand my country completely, even in a lifetime, but I want to try to understand as much as I can. And in my case, through photographs.
The landscape is very significant to Indonesians. We are living in the Pacific Ring of Fire. We have more than 100 volcanoes and over 80,000 km of coastlines. So speaking of numbers it’s massive. But when we talk about the relationship, that is where it gets more interesting.
Can you give us an example of this relationship that you had encountered while working on the project?
I was visiting Lamalera village for the third time last year. It is a small village of 2,000 people in a small island in the east part of Indonesia. They have a tradition of hunting sperm whales that dates back 600 years. For me, the village is very interesting because they believe that the sea is where their ancestors lived and it gives them their livelihood.
During this last trip, I sensed a different vibe from the villagers, there was a sense of uneasiness, unexplained tensions and people kept a little bit of distance than before. They haven’t caught any whales for a few months, nor had any sightings. One night, we sat together with some of the elders and talked about this. They said the reason that there was no whale at all was because there was one person in the village who committed a taboo. Out of anger and emotion, this guy had deliberately cut a rope that had tied a whale on the beach to keep it from drifting away. They believe that when they catch something, everything has to be used and distributed in the village. To do this on purpose is to mock the ancestors and the spirit of the whales. They think this is a punishment from their ancestors in the sea.
During my 3-week stay, I didn’t see any whales. They were planning to do a ritual to make amends with the sea a few days after I left. Believe it or not, a week after I left, I got a text saying they had just caught three whales. They were happy, they made peace with the sea and it again provides. Of course there should be a logical, scientific explanation for why this happened, but I prefer the traditional one. It makes more sense, at least for me.
You plan to publish the project as a book, when is it due?
I published my first book back in 2013, Encounters. I self published it. I used my own resources and with help from a few friends, I managed to produce and sell it online. It is now sold out.
For Men, Mountains and the Sea, I was planning to publish it this year but that might change. I don’t know if I will use a publisher but the option of self-publishing is also a strong one.
The idea of being a photographer – doing what you like and travelling constantly – seemed very romantic when I was in my 20s
Men, Mountains and the Sea, The Sweet Sugar Island, Show Me The Money. Living in Indonesia supplies an endless number of stories, what type of stories interest you?
There are a lot of stories. It’s only a matter of which ones are interesting for me and doable. It’s hard to say but I always enjoy people’s stories. So I think it will always involve people. And something not too depressing.
What are the advantages for a photojournalist working here, and what are the challenges?
Like any other photographer living in his own country, if you know the language, you basically know the culture, the dos and don’ts and you know your way around if you get in trouble. The challenge is always money. Going to places takes a lot of your savings if you’re working on a self-initiated project. We’re an archipelago so we need to fly a lot and sometimes you need to pay as much as USD150 for a 20-minute flight in some places. For me, in this project, it affects me very much – I started with places that I thought were the most affordable to reach, now I am left with the most expensive places to go.
Sometimes I get this feeling that I am bored with the act of taking pictures, but I never get bored with photography
Second is the platform for photography, although I think it is the same problem all over Southeast Asia. With such big economy, Indonesia should have the same kind of platform for photography as Singapore, at the very least. We have no grants, no support, no opportunity for working documentary photographers here in Indonesia. All the projects that I did in the past were mostly exhibited or published outside the country. There is little or almost non-existent support for young photographers working in Indonesia. There is a lot of basic education for photography and photojournalism but there is no proper space for working documentary photographer to live and grow. But hey, that is life.
What motivates you to continue taking photographs, whether politically, financially, emotionally?
I get bored easily and it was boredom that made me switch from being a computer programmer to a photographer. That was not the life I wanted to do. With photography there is a constant attraction. Sometimes I get this feeling that I am bored with the act of taking pictures, but I never get bored with photography. I am always amazed with what you can do with photographs, the same feeling when I first saw the Minamata work by Eugene Smith, 12 years ago. It is that specific feeling that made me enthusiastic to take pictures for my projects. Whenever I got bored or tired, especially when I have to do some photography that I really don’t like, I always think that I have to do this shit to do my own thing afterwards.
It isn’t about the money, I think it’s about how you want to live your life. When I was trained to become a computer programmer, I could see myself in 10 years what I would be. And it scared me. The idea of being a photographer – doing what you like and travelling constantly – seemed very romantic when I was in my 20s, so I jumped at the chance to become one. Now it feels almost the same, except that I realised that I am not a romantic person. But I know the times when I am taking pictures are when I feel really alive.
What are you working on now?
I am still continuing Men, Mountains and the Sea, hoping to finish it. I plan to go to a few more locations today. When it feels right for me, I will make a book. Maybe this year or next year, who knows?