If there is one name to look out for in Indonesian photography today, it is Rony Zakaria.
At 28, Rony has already made a name for himself both in Indonesia and abroad, with a host of well-earned honors and achievements under his belt.
Most recently, the young photographer launched his first solo exhibition and photo book, both titled “Encounters.”
The exhibition was held at the end of March at Galeri Cipta III at the respected Central Jakarta cultural center, Taman Ismail Marzuki. The self-published book is now available for purchase.
An unexpected talent
Rony never expected to launch a career in photography. His first university degree was in mathematics and computer science.
“I planned to start a business as a Web designer when I suddenly fell into photography in 2005. Since then, I have looked vigorously for opportunities such as photo competitions, festivals and grants to experience things and expand my skill,” Rony says.
“Falling into” photography meant a series of freelance gigs with prestigious publications such as National Geographic Indonesia, the International Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal.
To develop his skill, Rony studied photojournalism with news agency Antara in Jakarta and took a fellowship at the Asian Center for Journalism in Manila.
His works were first displayed at the Antara Photojournalism Gallery (GFJA) in 2007.
Since then he has received the Mochtar Lubis Award Grant for Investigative Reporting (2009), the Best Photo Essay Award from Tempo magazine (2010) and the National Press Photographers Association Award for Best Photojournalism in 2010 and 2011, among other prizes.
His work has been shown in group exhibitions in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Taiwan and France. “Encounters” was his first show as a solo artist.
Rony’s work as a freelance photojournalist has provided him with the opportunity to experience a wide variety of situations.
His interaction with and observation of different locations has carved out a wealth of experiences and feelings.
“Encounters” showcased 32 of the best snapshots collected in the course of his work from 2006 to 2012.
“The exhibition, which showed black-and-white documentary photos, was a way for me to move to another level,” Rony says.
Unlike Rony’s narrative works published in the media, the shots in “Encounters” showed a more poetic and illustrative approach, eliciting curiosity from viewers.
Rony, who is shy by nature, bravely exposed in the book and exhibition his encounters with faces of solitude, hope, anger, struggle and impermanence.
A dog barking and a frightening-looking monkey become Rony’s record of tense, thrilling and breathtaking moments.
Rony describes “Encounters” as a daily journal. As such, the moments recorded are instinctive and personal, without too much prior thought given to the subject matter.
This approach was inspired by the American photographer Robert Frank, one of Rony’s idols, who never attempted to analyze a situation before releasing the shutter.
“In my opinion, what I capture with my camera is a gift,” Rony says. “I see something that I find attractive and I eternalize it.”
This approach can be risky, as it leaves interpretation of context entirely up to the viewer.
For this challenge, Rony took his cues from another American photographer, John Szarkowski, who divided photography into two categories: mirrors and windows.
“Mirrors,” in Szarkowski’s view, focused on the self-expression of the photographer, while “windows” showed outside responses and allowed for exploration on the part of the viewer.
Rony prefers to provide a window to let viewers explore and find their own meaning in the snapshots he offers.
Another of his idols is Daido Moriyama, a Japanese street photographer who also prefers to shoot in black-and-white.
The striking portrayal of everyday scenes in a new and unexpected way is an influence clearly seen in Rony’s work.
But Rony’s next challenge is to brave the world of color photography.
“I am not yet able to connect very well with colors,” he says. “From the beginning, black-and-white documentary photography was my comfort zone. But now I am ready to move forward and experiment in my next project. I might explore colors.”
It is interesting that Rony, born in the 1980s, should find color photography a challenge, given that he grew up in a generation attached to the Internet and rapidly changing technology.
But it takes courage to continue to evolve as an artist once a reputation has been built in a certain medium.
Rony plans to take on board the feedback from both professional peers and uninitiated viewers who came to see his show last month.
He looks to other Asian photographers of the same age, who he says are very disciplined and persistent in reaching their goals, as his inspiration to move forward.
Rony confesses that he works hard at his profession rather than relying on talent, which he claims he does not possess.
“I do not have prosperous knowledge in art. I struggle to improve myself step by step,” he says.
In September, Rony will join “Photoquai,” a biennial exhibition in Paris. Viewers can only wait to see how this developing talent will present his view of Indonesia to the world.
"Encounters" By Rony Zakaria 84 pages