Monday, March 29, 2010

Wake of the Flood

There is a very special corner in central Jakarta. 

In 1998 the Asian economic crisis led to unrest in Indonesia, and the eventual ousting of Suharto, the second President of Indonesia. Suharto's New Order, a centralized, military-focused government, was known for suppressing dissent and censorship. When the economic crisis hit Indonesia, the people rose up and held rallies. When students were killed while rallying, Jakarta plunged into chaos, rioting and pillaging. Suharto stepped aside. In those chaotic days, photojournalists from around Indonesia began to congregate near the Hotel Indonesia in central Jakarta. At the heart of the city, and adjacent to a police station, they found relative safety and could share up-to-the-minute information on the situation, years before the advent of Twitter.

Now, 12 years later, the photojournalists still congregate. Not through Facebook or any other website. They still meet at the corner they call "Ha Ee"(HI). 

I met an Indonesian photojournalist, Jefri, through a photojournalist website. I had questions about a handful of places I wanted to see in Indonesia and he had answers. When I sent him my rough itinerary he said we should meet when I got to Jakarta and he'd show me some of those sights.

Jefri picked me up at my hotel my second morning in Jakarta and greeted me with a double hug; far more genuine than one generally expects from a virtual stranger. He took me to a streetside warung where we had some beef sate and I told him about my trip so far. He mentioned the harbor which I had pinned on my Google map and said we should go check it out after lunch.

The Sunda Kelapa harbor in north Jakarta was packed with wooden sailboats seemingly from another era. The ships carried goods to and from Indonesia's various 17,000 islands. Cranes lifted tons of cement, rice flour, and cookies from ship to shore and back, with crews calling to each other and coordinating their efforts. Jeff pretended to be a tourist, shooting photos with his little pocket camera while we explored the docks. Jeff explained and then demonstrated that Indonesians enjoy being photographed and invite others to visit their world. As I shot from the docks, sailors and their families would call us up onto the ships to come and photograph their quarters and the view from the helm. And Jeff, with his pocket camera, still managed to nab a shot that was good enough to be published online the next day.
Lifting sacks of cement onto a ship

Barrels of palm oil from Sumatra

After the docks, Jeff invited me to meet some friends, and that was when I was introduced to the crew at HI. We parked Jeff's motorcycle near the police station, where Jeff explained, people don't bother the bikes because they could belong to a police officer. As we approached the corner, I realized everyone there had cameras around their neck, waist, or next to them. Numerous laptops were open, with people hunched over Photoshop. I was introduced to a flurry of names, Beyandry, Alan, Astra, Tri... I'd never remember them all. Each person greeted me with with a huge smile and warm welcome. Each person was employed by an agency, a newspaper or two, or the Associated Press. Photographers and editors.This was like rubbing elbows with a very elite group.

A tea was purchased for me, and Beyandry, who I was told to call Bey, engaged me in conversation about my trip and my life.
"So, what kind of images do you go for? Human interest? Labor? Industry? Nature?"
It was interesting: I hadn't categorized what I shoot before, but it was evident that it was how the folks at HI think of their work.
I asked what he had shot that day, and he said he had been lazy and hadn't left HI, but that in Indonesia you don't have to look far for great images. He held up his Canon and showed me a set of pictures of children jumping off a culvert into a drainage river. They were gorgeous.
"That was right here, next to HI!" he shouted, pointing to the little river that flowed next to where we were sitting.

Bey and I philosophized on politics, on the meanings of colors, on photography and on life, and well after dark, when Jeff was ready to return me to my hotel, I was handed a handful of names, addresses, Facebook pages and phone numbers.
Except Bey didn't use the Facebook.
"Too many women! I can't have them knowing each other, or it will just lead to trouble!!" he said with a huge laugh.

The next morning, Jeff and I met and talked through my rough itinerary over local Javanese Java. The plan was for me to head back to the harbor to photograph shipbreaking, something Jeff had shot before and had connections to get through security. Jeff's phone rang and he started speaking quickly. Something was up.
"There is a flood a few hours from here; the agencies are looking for coverage. You can go to the shipbreaking, or we can go shoot the flood..."
The correct answer was obvious. Shipbreaking could wait.

Good to know you got shoes to wear, when you find the floor

A couple hours later Jeff, Bey and I were in West Karawang, careening down the highway with another photographer named Alan, and an assistant who never really said much to anyone and whose name I didn't catch. Cell phones were blowing up and everyone was chattering away. As we first glimpsed a flooded field, the tones of voices were raised and the excitement was contagious. I don't know the words they used in Indonesian,  but they sounded like the were saying "Aha! Bingo! This is it!"

Traffic ground to a halt as the roads ahead were totally flooded. We drove as far as we could and then parked alongside a handful of police officers directing traffic and residents soliciting cash relief donations in cardboard boxes. I knew we'd be getting wet and I hadn't come dressed for the part: I was in my only pair of hiking shoes, and those had to stay in the car or the rest of my trip would be pretty uncomfortable. What to do?
As I stepped out of the car barefoot, I looked down and on the shoulder and found an abandoned pair of sandals. They were dirty, broken, but just what the doctor ordered.
As we reached the flooded street, a throng of children ran past us, splashing and shouting and clearly having a great time.

Children playing in the floodwaters

It was an eerie scene, first reaching the homes. It was generally quiet, the water starting out ankle deep, and quickly increasing to hip deep. Our crew split up, with Jeff and I taking the same alleyway. Houses closes to the road were flooded a few feet deep and people had piled up their belongings, stacking their stuff so that they could stay at home and sleep an inch or two from the ceiling. They dangled their feet in the water and invited us to photograph them.

Flooded home

As we went deeper into the neighborhoods and into the water, we walked carefully, unaware of what laid beneath the opaque brown water. Despite the water, the sun bore down so hard that I was drenched in sweat as well, it burning my eyes and I trudged and hoped that I didn't step in the wrong place.
We found small islands in the neighborhood, places where locals had strung tarps to create shelter, and had set up beds and dressers, as if they lived in these tents full-time. Meals were being prepared and quite a few people were fishing in the now-proximate river.
As I reached water that went well beyond my waist a villager approached me with a raft made of bamboo and styrofoam. It wasn't new and had clearly been used in situations like this before. He offered me a ride and pushed me through the flooded streets, allowing me to shoot photos all along the way.

Pushing the raft

Occasionally we would reach more islands, which were often used to corral chickens and ducks. The resulting slurry proved to be a vacuum for my broken sandals and made walking in them impossible. Meanwhile, the sandal's stiff, broken plastic gouged my foot, opening me up to untold pathogens as the poultry slurry and floodwaters met the wound. I ditched the sandals entirely.
Life went on, a women combed another woman's hair while they floated on a raft, children swam, men fished.

Child with a raft

Fishing in the flood

I sailed along, balanced carefully upon the raft until I found Jeff again. He was on the roof of a house, steadily shooting photos and waving at me. I sailed over and joined him. When we were done shooting, I returned to my raft and Jeff was to join me. He told me to sit forward and hold still. As we departed the home we were balanced on, the raft began to take on water.
"Sinking!" I shouted to Jeff. The boat rocked a bit and, desperate to protect the ten thousand of dollars of camera gear between us both, gripped the side of the raft just as it rocked to the side. The boat righted itself and stabilized, but not without ripping my thumb backwards and causing me to yelp in pain.

We sailed back to shallower waters and carried on by foot. As we trudged through a knee-deep alley, I noticed that my thumb began to swell.
"Everything OK?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah, no major injuries," I said and at that exact moment I stepped into what had previously been the gutter. I disappeared another foot deeper in the water, but kept my gear raised high.
"Still OK?"
"Yeah!" We both laughed.

Been down before, you just don't have to go no more 

We regrouped with the others and went off to "see survivors" as Jeff said. We reached a camp of temporary housing just as the storm returned. Within minutes, the sky went dark and torrential rain and strong wind tore through the camp as officials struggled to get tents assembled.
The guys poured into the camp with confidence, firing off rounds of photos in the swirling chaos. I followed, and was close behind Jeff when he took a sudden step backwards. I braced myself by putting out my injured hand and he cracked my thumb backwards again.
As the rain intensified, we all dove into tents to seek shelter. There, families sat and laid on the tarpaulin floor and ate and talked. Similar to the scene in the neighborhood, folks were laughing, joking with each other, and generally seeming unfazed by the situation around them.
"How long will people live in here?" I asked.
"Don't know. It could be a week, it could be a month. Not until the water is gone."
"I think I might be smiling like this on day one, but starting on day two, I might not be having so much fun."
"These are Indonesians," Jeff said with a smile.

Eating in the tent

We stayed for a while and once the rain let up a bit, we hustled back to the car. A while later, we pulled up to a restaurant, five drenched and filthy men draped in camera equipment. As we sat down, kretek clove cigarettes were lit, Acer eees were opened, Photoshop was loaded, and satellite connections enabled. The guys cropped, tuned levels and trash talked.
"Photo contest!" Alan explained.
In my opinion, Bey's was the best looking: children splashing under a rail bridge as the train sped by overhead. Jeff's photo of a man swimming in his house, up to his neck, with a portrait of their President mostly submerged on the wall behind him.
"Interesting how Indonesians are all smiles, yeah?" Jeff asked me.
"Yeah, it seems that even in this disaster, they are carrying on like it's natural."
"Yes, always smiling! But you know which pictures the newspapers will publish..."
He was right. It was fascinating to see whole story of the flood: sure it was an inconvenience, but it seemed to be one that the residents were practiced at managing. And on the whole, folks seemed pretty upbeat. Looking at my photos, it would be easy to portray the flood as a party or as a travesty. In a world where newspapers have a bottom line, it was likely that Jeff's photo would be carried farther.

As we drove home from the restaurant, I asked Jeff if he was any drier yet.
"A bit. Did you see me up to my waist in there?"
"Yeah! I was too!"
"Yes, I think it is important to suffer a bit when shooting something like that. It gives the photos some soul."
I think he was right. I showered and slept in air conditioned comfort that night, cleaned my foot wound and iced my thumb, but by comparison, my suffering was minimal. Perhaps not routine for me, but it was best to face it like the flooded Indonesians: with a smile, which I couldn't help if I tried.

(I really want to post more photos with this article, but the connection is terrible and I'm up way too late. I will try to republish again later with more edits and photos. No guarantees though: Indonesian internet sucks.)