Curating Photography in Indonesia: An Interview between Zhuang Wubin and Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo

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Curating Photography in Indonesia An interview between Zhuang Wubin and Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo

By the time I started visiting Java more frequently from 2006 onwards to write about its development of photography, Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo (b. 1964, Jakarta) had already faded out from the scene. Nevertheless, his imprint could still be felt everywhere I turned. At the historic Pasar Baru (New Market) in Jakarta stands Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara (Antara Photojournalism Gallery, or GFJA) in a building that once housed the Japanese Domei news agency during World War II and the national news agency of Antara. In 1992, Antara reopened its old office at Pasar Baru and converted it into GFJA, the first non-profit public gallery in Southeast Asia dedicated to photography. From 1994 to 1999, Yudhi worked for GFJA, becoming the first full-time photo curator of the region. While pursuing a BA in International Business Administration at the American College in Paris, Yudhi picked up photography


towards the end of 1985 to cure his insomnia. Subsequently, he took a photography class at the Parsons School of Design and was hooked. Returning home after an internship with IBM France, Yudhi began his photographic career in 1987 at Jakarta-Jakarta magazine. Within the same year, he moved to the hugely influential Tempo magazine and worked as its photographer and correspondent in London, before returning to the Jakarta bureau towards the end of 1988. From 1990 to June 1992, when he left Tempo, Yudhi served as its photo editor. In 1990, Yudhi also received a scholarship to do a six-month course at the School of Documentary Photography, Gwent College of Higher Education in Newport, Wales. Away from work, he made personal projects like the affecting Oma (1992–95), which recorded the passing of his once-energetic Minangkabau grandmother. Part eulogy, part rediscovery of the family house where Yudhi grew up, the work allowed him to critique the myth of objectivity

Part of the set The Birthday or a Failed Picture of Oma at 85, From the series Oma, 1992-95. Š Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo


that has burdened photography. Eminent curator Jim Supangkat (b. 1948, Makassar) selected it for the much-discussed 9th Jakarta Biennale in 1993, an event that heralded the debate on the post-modern and the contemporary in Indonesia. Despite its association with Antara, GFJA functions like a foundation. Its programming under Yudhi was eclectic, to say the least. It hosted exhibitions and talks by iconic practitioners, including Shamow’el Rama Surya (b. 1970, Bukittinggi, West Sumatra), Ray Bachtiar (b. 1959, Bandung), Nico Dharmajungen (b. 1948, Jakarta), Ruang MES 56 collective (in existence informally since 1994; officially, since 2002) and Sebastião Salgado, amongst others. The gallery also showcased photographs by sex workers, colonial postcards of the Dutch East Indies and Bauhaus photo-collages. In 1994, Yudhi and Oscar Motuloh (b. 1959, Surabaya) helped to set up the workshop programme at GFJA, which is still in existence today, offering entry-level training for people interested in press photography and photojournalism. Yudhi also initiated Kota Kita (My City), a series of advanced workshops that became the launch pad for a younger generation of photographers, including Mohamad Iqbal (b. 1971, Jakarta) and Evelyn Pritt (b. 1978, Jakarta),


among others. He was responsible for starting the photobook library at GFJA, which was open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6 pm. By the time Yudhi left the gallery towards the end of 1999, he had curated or organised well over 60 exhibitions at GFJA. Since then, Oscar has taken over the curatorial role w hile retaining his position as the director of the gallery. Amongst the numerous essays Yudhi has penned, ‘The Challenge of Space: Photography in Indonesia, 1841-1999’, first published in 2000, remains one of the most concise and critical introductions to Indonesian photography. His persistence, since the late ’90s, in piecing together the history of the Indonesian Press Photo Service (founded in 1946) has finally resulted in the beautifully printed Indonesian Press Photo Service (IPPHOS): Remastered Edition, published in 2013 by GFJA. This article is derived from three interviews with Yudhi conducted on 14 and 17 December 2015, and on 11 December 2016. It is a belated attempt to recuperate his experiences in curating photography and building an institution like GFJA in Indonesia, filling in the gaps to my previous publication, Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey (NUS Press, 2016).

Zhuang Wubin [ZW]: When Oscar Motuloh hired you for GFJA, was that the first time the designation ‘curator’ was being used in relation to Indonesian photography?

He was also the supervisor of GFJA but my main discussion with him was more on management matters relating to money and the usual reporting to Antara.

Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo [YS]: I guess so. It was already in use in seni rupa (visual arts). Jim Supangkat helped to popularise the term. When he organised the Jakarta Art and Design Expo 1992, people were already discussing about curation and Jim’s role as a curator. Nevertheless, when I first gave out my GFJA name card, people would still ask me: ‘What is a curator?’ That was in 1994.

ZW: When you were offered the job as a curator, did you think of what you would do?

ZW: Did Oscar or Antara direct your programming? YS: No, that was the best job ever. I was called to the office of the late general manager of Antara who told me, quite upfront, that he didn’t understand photography. All he demanded of me was that I would fly the Antara flag high. I was left to my job and he never once interfered during the six years when I was at GFJA. At that time, Oscar was already a well-respected photographer at the Antara photo bureau.

YS: When I first joined GFJA in 1994, I told Oscar I would try to redefine photojournalism. Over the next few years, we would debate and discuss what constituted photojournalism. I wanted to expand the definition to be as wide as possible. As GFJA’s curator, I was responding to the problems that I had encountered previously as a photographer and as a photo editor of Tempo — the fact that photographers were considered second or third-class citizens within the industry, the fact that there was a lot of misunderstanding as to how one would read photography. That was my starting point. I also tried to put myself in the shoes of an ordinary visitor. If he visited GFJA at Pasar Baru, what kind of an experience would he be looking for? What would make him


excited enough to return to the space? That was how I approached my work, rather than me saying that curating should be this or that. Everything else, from writing to the hanging of prints, you could learn on the job. It wasn’t that difficult. I guess my approach was very singular. I wasn’t talking about art photography. The focus was on photojournalism but I was also interested in managing the sector of photography. How could we push for regeneration so that we would have more photographers? How could we generate more intellectuals in photography, alongside the people who could control the camera? ZW: What were the initial challenges at GFJA? YS: We didn’t have programming money. At Antara, they paid me a salary and covered our operational costs. But I would have to raise money for programmes. Well, there are three things that you need to run a museum or gallery. You need visitors. You need programming to attract the visitors. You need money to create programmes. Where should I begin? That was why I initiated Kota Kita.

In 1993, when I mounted my first solo exhibition of the Paris metro at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Jakarta, I befriended several students who were already quite talented in photography. I invited them to participate in Kota Kita but I did not guarantee an exhibition at the end. The theme for the first Kota Kita was Kota Tua Jakarta (Old City of Jakarta). It was not just an attempt to do another photo essay on the old city of Jakarta. The emphasis for Kota Kita was on the interpretation of the theme. It was meant to help the participants look at things differently. For three months, we met each Saturday to discuss what the theme meant for each photographer. It was very intensive. In the end, I found some support to do the show. A lot of people turned up for the show. They thought that professional photographers were responsible for shooting the images. Most of the exhibiting photographers were actually university students! Evelyn Pritt was the youngest and she was still in high school then. The show received positive reviews on Tempo and Kompas (the largest national daily in Indonesia). That was the first exhibition I launched as GFJA’s curator. It helped to generate attention and goodwill towards GFJA. Padi: Secarik Fiksi dari Rangkaian Fakta (Padi: A Leaf of Fiction from a Network of Facts), 1994. Performance. Antara Photojournalism Gallery (GFJA), 1995. © Ray Bachtiar



ZW: I find it interesting that you were able to curate, under the auspices of a photojournalism gallery like GFJA, a show like Padi: Secarik Fiksi dari Rangkaian Fakta (Padi: A Leaf of Fiction from a Network of Facts, 1994) in 1995 for Ray Bachtiar. It was essentially a three-night performanceexhibition in which Ray turned the walls and ceiling at GFJA into his canvas on which he projected his images using nine slide projectors. He also choreographed 12 dancers to perform during the projection. I think there were no prints on the walls. Did you get a lot of flak for mounting such an exhibition?

Padi: Secarik Fiksi dari Rangkaian Fakta (Padi: A Leaf of Fiction from a Network of Facts), 1994. Performance. Antara Photojournalism Gallery (GFJA), 1995. © Ray Bachtiar


YS: Yes, there were no prints. No, in fact we received quite a lot of positive reviews in the major papers and magazines. Ray came with the proposal. In my desire to expand the definition of photojournalism, I thought it was a proposal that fitted with GFJA. He was really talking about a serious issue — the fact that our agricultural land was being converted to industrial use, which forced the farmers to work in factories instead of their farmlands, leading to the loss of our traditions and cultures

rooted in their ways of life. I was more interested in Ray’s courage in pursuing the project than his way of presenting the work. It’s true that his presentation was uncommon within the medium of photography. Perhaps it had already been done in performing arts but, bear in mind, this was before the popularity of video mapping. This is why our tagline at GFJA was ‘The freedom to see, the courage to testify’. You had the freedom to see and express yourself in whatever form you liked. You could do collage or montage, whatever. What made it different from being an art exhibition was that these people had the courage to testify about very serious issues. Usually, one reason why I would select an exhibition was that the artist was doing something interesting and that the issue was not being discussed currently. In other words, we felt it would be necessary to bring it up to provoke discussion. Hopefully, it would also force people to rethink the idea of photojournalism. That was why I picked Ray’s exhibition.


ZW: In 1999, you gave the first-generation members of Ruang MES 56 one of their earliest exhibitions in an art institution. Their group show at GFJA was titled Revolution #9. Of course, some of its members are now the darlings of Indonesian contemporary art, championed by collectors even beyond Indonesia. What was your thinking then in presenting their works at GFJA? YS: I first got to know Nuraini Juliastuti (b. 1975, Surabaya; co-founder of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta) who was still a student then. I think I assigned her the task of writing a report on photography in Yogyakarta for Fotocopy, the monthly newsletter that GFJA printed using a photocopier. From there, I got acquainted with Angki Purbandono (b. 1971, Cepiring; founding member of Ruang MES 56). I think Ruang MES 56 subsequently approached us with a proposal, which was quite interesting. It was important for me as a curator to have diversity in the works we presented. I wasn’t interested in just championing a certain kind of photography. With Ruang MES 56, we could finally shift our focus


from Jakarta and Bandung to Yogyakarta where there were photographers working in a different way to the pictorial or salon photographers there. In a way, they were students rebelling against their education, their environment and the photo industry as a whole. If we did the show at GFJA, it would surely provoke discussions. The show also featured some nudity. Because the photographers were Indonesians rather than Germans, for instance, it felt closer to home. The show took place during the period of openness after Reformasi (which toppled Suharto) and before the emergence of fundamentalism. At that time, Angki had already sold one of his works to a Dutch collector. Anyway, none of us could have predicted their success today. I am happy for them. But the discussion we had in 2012, which Ruang MES 56 invited me for, was more about the present and the future. What’s next for Ruang MES 56? Have they forgotten their roots? Is this it? Is this how far they can go? Do they need to reinvent themselves? I don’t know. But the discussion was interesting because of the sense of uncertainty that prevailed.

Revolution #9, at Antara Photojournalism Gallery (GFJA), Jakarta. Exhibition brochure, published in conjunction with the 1999 group exhibition of Ruang MES 56 © Angki Purbandono


ZW: When you presented Ruang MES 56 or Ray Bachtiar at GFJA, why didn’t you just say that you were promoting photography as art? YS: When I started as a curator, I said I was not going to talk about art. I was very explicit about it because the term ‘art’ would propel us into a never-ending debate, which was meaningless. If you read the old mission statement of GFJA, we thought of photography basically as a language. It was a language that needed to be understood. Through the process of creation, exhibition making, and debate, we would create an understanding of the times and the world we lived in. Of course, there was artistry in the works we exhibited but that would not be the main focus of our mission. If we thought of photography as a language, it would be easier to have a discussion with people who did not understand much about photography. With art, we would have to go into all kinds of theory. It would be unproductive. ZW: Wasn’t such an approach contradictory to your intention of elevating the status of photography? YS: That would come. When people started seeing photography as a language, they would want to know how to read it. With that, they would realise the intention of the photographer and the importance of its context. That was why each exhibition at GFJA was accompanied by a curatorial introduction and a public discussion with


the artist. Little by little, people started appreciating photography. It was not so much about whether this was art or not. They realised that there was something important enough for the photographers to photograph and share it with the viewers, and that it was important enough for people to come to the gallery to view and interact with the work, and to raise questions about it. That was far more relevant to me, rather than whether the work was considered artistic or not. ZW: In your desire as GFJA’s curator to expand the definition of photojournalism, you seemed to contrast it against press photography. How do you define photojournalism? YS: Well, press photography is very quick. You go out, shoot, return to the office, deliver it, and move on to the next thing. You have no connection with what you did yesterday. Photojournalism is more of an approach. It is a wider set of ideas through which you perceive the world, which informs the way you record and express yourself. ZW: Is photo documentary more advanced than photojournalism? YS: Photo documentary is more complex. It requires greater commitment from the photographer in terms of time and his or her relationship with the subject. Photojournalism can take all kinds of forms. Photo documentary is the form in

itself. When I fell in love with photography, it was because the medium allowed me a way to discover and uncover the world. Photo documentary provides us the best form to achieve that. It is not the perfect form. But it is the best form to do so. ZW: In hindsight, what does curating entail? YS: A curator must research. Part of the curator’s job is to translate, interpret, and provide access to what he or she is researching. You research something that is interesting, something that needs to be brought up as a discourse because nobody is talking about it. But a curator’s job is to take that research, however complex and difficult it may be, and present it in a way that is accessible to the layperson. That’s a different challenge, which brings us to a different aspect of the curator’s job, which is to organise the exhibit. It entails very technical stuff like selecting the pictures, printing, designing the space, book publishing, designing and producing the promo materials, etc. That’s the complete job scope. It is not just researching or writing. Some curators just write an intro text to an exhibition. For me, it’s more than that.

and they wouldn’t return until the next exhibition. But if you had workshops and discussions, it would be more attractive for people to revisit the venue for the duration of each show. I was also thinking about the experience that people would get when they engaged with an institution or organisation. They might come in because they were interested in a particular show. The following week, they would be able to meet the photographer and ask questions, listen to what he or she had to say about the exhibit. After that, they might wish to try their hands on a bit of photography. This is what they call the ladder of engagement. Instead of providing one kind of engagement, you have different levels of engagement. Each level of engagement brings you deeper into the relationship. That was the reason for us to run workshops at GFJA.

ZW: Why did you include workshops to the programming of GFJA? YS: If we merely exhibited works, there wouldn’t be a lot of things to do for the visitors. They would come to see the show


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