Born and bred in a country where the good, the bad and the odd are exposed in the media almost on a daily basis, sometimes it seems as if there are no more surprises left to discover in Indonesia.
Besides, I have to stick to my Javanese ancestral philosophy, ojo gumunan (never be easily awed). So far, I have always been a loyal follower of the philosophy because I believe it teaches us an important moral lesson: Do not be gullible or easily fooled simply by what you see. It teaches me to go deeper and look at what’s beneath the surface.
A book called “Indonesia, a Surprise,” launched earlier this month, came to me like a challenge. Would it be able to surprise me?
It’s a coffee table book full of stunning photography by 10 heavyweight lightstalkers accompanied by poems and essays by prolific poet and playwright Goenawan Mohamad. All the big names on the cover augured well, so I opened the 205-page book.
Not expecting a masterpiece, I was mentally prepared to not be impressed by its contents.
Goenawan opens the book with a lyrical essay titled “Indonesia: A Surprise.” “A metaphor may beguile, even as it misleads. Multatuli’s depiction of this archipelago — yet to be called ‘Indonesia’ — was repeatedly quoted by various leaders of the nationalist movement early in the 20th century,” he writes.
“But a figure of speech is no definition. ‘Emerald’ or ‘smaragd’ (Multatuli’s phrase is ‘de gordel van smargd’) originates from the Greek smargdos: ‘green gem.’ Its beauty is fascinating. Indeed it brings to mind vibrant tropical forests without end. But hard and chiseled emeralds, when arranged into a ‘girdle’ (gordel), are a finished product,” he writes.
It’s a thought-provoking description of what’s in the book. The line-up of photographers is quite intimidating, as they are all well known and much respected.
Self-taught photographer Jay Subiakto is widely known as a director and has produced numerous works: music, film and theater. His photo collection, “The Rolling Stone, a Life on the Road,” was published by Virgin Books in 1998. Jay is joined by other high-calibre photographers. Award-winning Kemal Jufri, who began his career in 1996 as a photojournalist for Agence France-Presse’s Jakarta bureau, has become a household name and his work has been featured in some of the world’s most renowned publications including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Stern.
Famed for his breathtaking aerial pictures, Jez O’Hare, an Indonesian citizen since 1995, is also no stranger to the photography scene.
Freelance photographer Ardiles Rante’s works have been acknowledged by many prestigious institutions including Pictures of The Year International, Best Photojournalism and Prix de la Photographie, Paris. He has also worked closely with Greenpeace on environmental photos. Freelance photographer John Suryaatmadja is currently retracing the journeys made by the distant ancestors of Chinese migrants to these islands, who left Taiwan, Hong Kong and parts of mainland China to seek a better life and trading opportunities in the archipelago.
Oscar Motuloh, who curated the book, began his career as a photojournalist for Antara and progressed to become the executive director of Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara, the news agency’s gallery. He now teaches photojournalism across Indonesia.
The book is divided into three main parts: Sejauh (As Far As), Mata (The Eyes) and Memandang (Can See).
The dramatic landscape images from Wae Rebo in Flores, aerial views of Jakarta, Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Nusa Ceningan, Mt. Cartensz in Papua’s Puncak Jaya and Waha island in Southeast Maluku and Morowali Nature Reserve in Central Sulawesi immediately strike the eye with their natural color, precision and intense composition.
I found that the images toward the beginning prepared the reader for more dramatic scenes to come. Unlike any other photo book I have seen, “Indonesia, a Surprise” draws the photographs into a distinct narrative. The intensity builds from one part to the next. Kudos to Oscar, who arranges the stunning imagery into an intense epic.
Oscar created a journey within the pages of this book. The eyes wander across the peaks and troughs of Indonesia, looking at the cheerful faces of young islanders and the sweaty fishermen hunting for whales in eastern waters before coming to the natural disaster that scarred the earth in Yogyakarta and Central Java after Mt. Merapi erupted.
Having pored over the pages, I could only sum up the impression this fantastic book gave me: Indonesia is surprisingly beautiful, surprisingly violent and surprisingly hopeful.
Indonesia, a Surprise Published by Jaya 205 pages, 2011. Available at major bookstores.
199 pages plus six additional for brief descriptions of the photo locations and short bio of the photographers as well.