Documentary Photography: It's All in the Process

 

 

I’ve been teaching my first documentary photography workshop in a while, notably since the ever more crushing presence of things like instagram and tiktok, and also since the pandemic began. The participants are a mixed group of photographers – some of them quite accomplished travel photographers.

I realise that I’m now looking at visual creativity from a different angle than before. Part of it is undoubtedly the ever greater role social media apps now play in defining not only what images we look at, but also how we look at them (and consequently how we value them).

The hiatus and relative introspective mode of the pandemic has allowed me fresh perspectives. All photographers are affected by trends, and always have been. And I find nothing wrong with being inspired by those who have gone before or even are our contemporaries. It’s part of the way civilisation works. Yet nowadays the power of the subliminal ‘norm’ has reached an absurd level of dominance on the visual lexicon of photography.

Both the act of making photographs and viewing them is now so facilitated (perhaps facile is a better word) that even the most astounding effects and visual accomplishments become banal in about 2 hours: the time it takes for them to be plagiarised to death. That’s how easy trends are set with this plethora of algorithms and other applications of so called artificial intelligence. The higher the number of likes, the greater the scale of plagiarism. And it all fits in our pocket.

But if in documentary photography we take away the formulaic templates, suddenly we’re lost. What should we should we shoot if we aren’t just to repeat the cleverness of others who got so many likes? What would it mean if we just copy, no matter how well we do so? Both now and in past workshops I found it curious how some of the participants who had great ‘travel portfolios’ got a bit lost when they had to choose their own subects and create their own visual narratives. I might be wrong, but this seems to be a particular challenge for many Asians: in many things we are used to learning by example: inculcated deep down in our psyches is the “virtue” of toeing the line, following the ways of our parents and forefathers, of not transgressing the norms of society.

We end up focusing on the result, and the result ends up dictating the process of how we see and look at things. But this runs counter to the spirit of documentary photography. This discipline of shedding light on realities and aspects of those realities that most viewers are not aware of depends on our own voyage of discovery. It’s not about showing clichés, no matter how well packaged. The process dictates the result.

In Buddhist psychology, true perception is a very fleeting and difficult thing to achieve. We have so many preconceptions and prejudices even before we arrive, then once we meet with situations we might have a shift but we still superimpose and project. In this context, the challenge of documentary photography “to photograph things simply as they are” becomes immense.

There is no question that personal style, approach, choice of subject matter will come into it. But the key to documentary work is for the photographer to push themselves beyond their preconceptions and prejudices, to learn to observe. What did we actually see? I’m deliberately avoiding the word ‘objective’; it’s too much of a minefield. Yet we still need to learn to recognize what we see. Sure we each have our own point of view, but we need pull out empathy and understanding out of our tool kit first before we start dithering around with our camera equipment.


The rains are here!

Well here I am, post monsoon Bali, early monsoon Thailand - and the rainy season hit Miyazaki today. urgh. But now I know why they have umbrella locks in this town - felt like grabbing an umbrella myself!!!dsc_8339.jpg


Ho Chi Minh Reverie

On my recent, and first, trip to Hanoi, one of the highlights was a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. In particular I was taken by an installation of images that apparently represent the ideas, personalities and events from the early 20th Century which had an effect on his world view.

 

Initially my companion Catriona Mitchell and I were disappointed to find that the famous Mausoleum itself was closed to the public. Ho Chi Minh’s remains were on their annual trip to Moscow for “maintenance” work. Or as one would-be guide put it: “Uncle Ho is on vacation”. This hopeful man also told us the museum was closed and that he would take us on a tour of Hanoi. Declining as politely as we could, we wandered around and lo and behold the museum was open. Funny that.

The Museum itself is what I would expect from an institutionalized celebration of a charismatic leader who inspired a nation to resist post colonial foreign aggression for more than a quarter of a century. Celebrity socialist realism springs to mind. Naturally there is a propagandistic perspective to the museum, with displays of the colonial oppressor’s lifestyle juxtaposed next to the humble Vietnamese serf’s hovel; semi-abstract, magnificently heroic displays replete with extensive wall text and flip charts, hundreds of fascinating images of Uncle Ho in different situations; some rather abstruse, tangential displays – for example a corner with vegetables celebrating his message to the younger generation to look after the environment.

Hackneyed as some of the underlying message it is, one cannot help but admire the vision of Ho Chi Minh and the fact he planted this vision so deeply into the hearts and minds of the majority of the Vietnamese people. Perhaps it was the era when such charismatic leaders could have such a mesmerizing effect on a world just beginning to experience the gift of the 20th Century – the porousness of borders in the international realm of ideas.

But in amongst all this predictability,  Catriona and I stumbled upon a real gem. Almost hidden in a corner of the top floor we found a maze of glass and mirrors, with a myriad of images from the turn of the 20th Century printed seemingly haphazardly on many of the panels. Images ranged from Eadweard Muybridge’s (sic) experiments with motion photography; images of Einstein, Madame Curie, various inventions including the early automobile and other mechanical technology, high rise buildings in New York, paintings by Picasso, Rousseau and more. It was a fascinating insight – all of this were things which Ho Chi Minh was keenly aware of and had played a part in shaping his own views and politics. If anyone still had any illusions about Uncle Ho living in hermetic isolation “in the jungle”,  this display would certainly burst that bubble.

The maze is also plenty of fun to wander in and out of. The see-through images on some panels, combined with mirror effects from others contributes to an interesting spectrum of visual effects. And, this is the best place for a “selfie” as you don’t have to muck around trying to point the silly camera at yourself. Or perhaps I should say “pointing the camera at your silly self”.

Catriona and I agreed that this installation, along with a Vietnamese documentary about a traveling transvestite show (“Madame Phung’s Last Journey”) were the highlights of our week in Hanoi.

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all photos ©Rio Helmi

 


A Tribute to Lempad, and Layers of History #uwrf14

 This year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival’s tribute went to I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, the first UWRF tribute to a son of Ubud. It was particularly fitting that the tribute took place in front of one of the temples that Gusi Nyoman Lempad designed and executed for his royal patrons. Rio Helmi reports.

Presented by journalist/social commentator Wayan Juniartha, the event launched with a musical performance by a group of  boys from Padang Tegal whilst slides of Gusti Nyoman Lempad flashed on to the screen, including one of my favorites of him with his son Gusti Made Sumung. Once the music was over Wayan Juniartha, a.k.a. Jun,  introduced the film Lempad of Bali, produced and directed by John Darling and Lorne Blair. As it so happens, yours truly also worked on the production of this film as stills photographer and finding /setting up locations.

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A slide showing Gusti Nyoman Lempad with his son Gusti Made Sumung photo Rio Helmi

It was really touching to watch the film again after some years; the scenes showing Ubud back in 1978/79 particularly stirred a bit of nostalgia. The audience seemed captivated both by Lempad and his work, as well as the various now historical scenes. It felt strange that I, who played such a minor crew role in this film, was the only one of the original crew on stage: both Lorne and John are now long gone, and Made Sumung my old landlord and mentor even longer before them.

When I look back and remember what a struggle it was to make this film for John and Lorne – just getting the material into Bali at the time was no mean feat, and so much volunteer effort by so many people went into it – and see the reaction of people now I  really feel it was worth it.  At one point Jun and I looked back over the crowd and saw people packed right back over bridge.

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The scene just before the film started to roll. photo by Anggara Mahendra

After the last credit rolls, Jun invited Agung Rai, Hedi Hinzler and myself to talk about Lempad. Up first, I seized the opportunity to emphasize how important the role of Sumung was to Lempad’s international recognition. I remember distinctly how Gusti Made Sumung guided this film, the long conversations between him and John, his slightly mischievous yet rational explanations. An intriguing man himself, he had attached Dutch high school, taught to analyse in the western manner, yet remained completely Balinese. He used his knowledge of the outside world to be the conduit for his father, both helping Lempad understand the foreigners who arrived on his doorstep, and helping the foreigners understand the enigma that was his father.

Sumung was manager, interpreter, publicist, marketer, but above all loyal son and provider for his clan. The symbiosis of Lempad and his son is often overlooked by many who talk about Lempad’s work.

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Scholar Hedi Hinzler who spent years working on Lempad, explains some of the facts. photo Anggara Mahendra

It is a fact that Lempad was more adaptable to western artistic and architectural esthetics as a result. Hedi Hinzler bore this out in her short talk, somewhat interrupted by the rain that began to spatter down (the organizers swear that weverytime hey do an event on that stage for UWRf it rains!). Hedi pointed to the extensive correspondence that existed amongs the Europeans living in or linked to Bali in the 30s and 40s, how much they discussed Lempad, commissions for him and so forth. Thinking of Lempad as simply isolated in his own culture, creating without any “outside influence” would be a myth.

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Gustra of the UWRF team gallantly shelters Agung Rai from the rain with an umbrella nicked from the decor. photo Anggara Mahendra

Agung Rai finished up by stating that no matter what, Lempad for him was a Balinese artistic genius through and through. And at that point the rain got so heavy that UWRFs GUstra simply grabbed one of the decorative umbrellas off the stage and dutifully stood behind Agung Rai and sheltered him from the rain. Turning around again I saw some of the more hardy of the audience huddled under their umbrellas

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A hardy audience  photo Anggara Mahendara

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 Jun, Jengki, and Rio commiserating about the weather.  Photo Anggara Mahendra 

The evening was meant to continue with poetry readings, kicking off with a poem by poet “Jengki” from Denpasar, but unfortunately the rain washed us out. But tribute to one of Ubud’s greatest sons had been paid, and soon we wandered off yet another Ubud Writers and Readers Festival event.

this post originally appeared on the ubudnowandthen.com blog roll


Super Charged Albino Expat Syndrome #uwrf14

Made Wijaya, a.k.a. Michael White, convened, chaired or provoked (we’re not sure which) a house rocking panel at the Left Bank earlier today. Invited/seduced/coerced (again we’re not sure which) to join were Balinese Putu Semiada and Wayan Juniartha, beyond-honorary Balinese Rucina Ballinger a.k.a. Jero Soka Astita a.k.a. Jero Ade (who has spent more than 35 years on Bali, is an expert on the culture, has two half Balinese sons in their 20s who grew up Balinese) and Canadian emigré Peter Wall of Hubud co-working space. The title of the panel was “Poison or Passion: the Rise of the Super Bule”. Rio Helmi didn’t take notes, and here is the short version of what his feeble memory retained: 

Made Wijaya  has spent decades in deep immersion in Balinese culture and has also spent decades doing his best to scandalize everyone with his outrageous alter-alter egos (amongst them the poofed up Widji Weinberg) antics, nowadays immortalized on video. Despite Wijaya’s reputation as a fast-talking, royalty-hugging drama queen, he does have a very serious side to him. His dedication and fierce defense of Balinese culture is quite informed and well intended. He is one of the few expats who really does stand up for the Balinese and takes it on the chin…

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Made Wijaya holds forth as Rucina Ballinger and Peter Wall sit bemused.

The panel rocked from the start, with Made quickly charting the etymological changes of the terms the Balinese use to call outsiders: from tamiu/tamu (guest), to turis, and then finally to the Jakarta slang bule. For those of you who are wondering, the term “bule”  is pejorative, and has the connotation of  being an albino canine. One of the more amusing things was members of the audience trying to get the definition of the term Super Bule – as if it was in the Oxford lexicon. Coined by Made Wijaya, the definition became more defined as the session went on.

Basically Made is taking aim at middle class foreign people who drop  out and into Bali, reinvent themselves, act entitled and are obnoxious. (Made, if I missed something I’m sure you know where the comment box is).  They are clearly Made’s pet hate, people who come and tread all over the Balinese and their culture.  If you are interested Made years ago also coined the expression ‘the villafication of Bali’, and if you really are interested on more of his coined phrases buy a copy of Stranger in Paradise.

There quickly ensued a serious and hilarious (that’s the kind of session it was)  discussion on the various social strata that have converged on Bali now.; beginning with the Super Bule, through the Bule Aga  (a take on the “Bali Aga” ancient Balinese cultures) who have been here longer and came to immerse  themselves in Bali and it’s culture, to Javanese rich and poor immigrants, through to various levels of Balinese themselves.

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above:  Wayan Juniartha: “You’re too romantic. Balinese don’t do 24/7 -365 ceremony…”  

below left: Rucina Ballinger,  

below right: Putu Semiada            

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Wayan Juniartha took a clean shot at Made and called him hopeless romantic. Jun went to say that Balinese don’t really spend 24/7 on ceremonies, they want to be modern just like everyone else. He also suggested that without tourism Balinese culture would have long been swallowed up. Putu Semiada pointed out that the school he runs is subsidized  by foreign donations, if weren’t for Bules there would be no program. One poignant quote from Putu: “Take what you want but leave us our gods”.

Rucina Ballinger pointed to her experience in her village just days after the infamous bombings in Kuta : as she sat preparing for a religious ceremony with the women of the community, not one person discussed the recent events only 7km away, instead the conversations were about the preparations for the gods.

There were also some heartfelt statements: a young boy of mixed Indonesian-English parentage asked what he should classify himself to be: Indonesian, English, or something else? (Peter Wall chimed in and said that there is such a thing as the third culture, something new. It was bit of a pity that Peter got caught up soft selling Hubud when we would have loved to have heard more about his experiences in bringing new economic opportunities to the Balinese, something which he barely touched on). Another expat went on to say how he never came to Bali before because of all the stories he had read about the bogans in paradise (g’wan, google it), but that it was a place where he came for his retirement and he has never felt happier and more alive in his life surrounded by Balinese culture, music, art, and villagers. He got a standing ovation.

There’s much more that was said and that happened but I have to run to the next panel.

Selamat Sore.

(this post originally appeared on www.ubudnowandthen.com  -  http://ubudnowandthen.com/super-charged-albino-expat-syndrome-uwrf14/


Silence is Not Always Golden

 

 

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Fund raising for Sita, born with Rubella syndrome resulting in  profound deafness. 

Penggalian dana untuk Sita, lahir dengan Rubella Syndrome yang menyebabkan gangguan esktrim pendengaran.

 

This is the story of the second child of my friend Made Nagi, a budding photojournalist in Bali: "Sita was diagnosed at birth with Rubella Syndrome. This syndrome  was responsible for two disorders, one to her heart and the other to her hearing. During  the first two years we focused on her heart problems, which in the end the doctors said was no longer a major threat.

 

However  due to her poor hearing Sita was not able to speak at four years of age. The  treatment and therapy we tried for years brought no palpable change for Sita. After long deliberation we decided  to go with a cochlear implantation. With the help  of many friends we could afford this procedure. On the 22nd of  August 2014, after a seamless five hour operation, Sita gave a positive response to the implant. This month the “bionic ear” was activated as she has recovered from the operation."

 

Sita will naturally require  intensive, ongoing  therapy so that it can function properly and that she can get the optimum benefit from it. At  the moment. after a period of nearly a week the sensitivity of her ‘bionic ear’ has been adjusted up to level three (of four) and she is responding to sounds. Now comes the task of teaching her the meanings of sounds and speech in general.

 

Naturally  there will be ongoing expenses – therapy, batteries, maintenance of the equipment (for example one of the connector cables is already broken, they are necessarily fragile but cost Rp 700,000 each to replace). And then  if there is any other damage that occurs after the 3 year guarantee period, the current replacement cost is IDR 100 million.

 

Rio Helmi Photo  Gallery is setting aside a percentage of all print sales during September, October and November as a donation to Sita’s therapy and equipment maintenances.

 

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Ini  kisah  anak  kedua  teman saya, wartawan foto Bali,  Made Nagi: “Sita lahir  dengan   didiagnosa mengalami Rubella syndrome. Syndrome  ini membawa  dua gangguan   bawaan  yaitu kelainan jantung dan pendengaran. Dua tahun pertama kami konsentrasi untuk mengatasi masalah kelainan jantungnya, yang akhirnya oleh dokter didiagnosa hanya masalah yang tergolong ringan.

Dengan kemampuan mendengar yang sangat lemah, sampai umur 4 tahun Sita belum juga mampu untuk bicara.

Treatment dan terapi selama beberapa tahun tidak memberikan dampak yang berarti untuk Sita.

Setelah pertimbangan yang cukup lama kami memutuskan untuk memeberikan kesempatan Sita untuk mendengar melalui prosedur cochlear implantation. Sukurlah berkat bantuan banyak teman kami dapat melaksanakan prosedur ini. Operasi berlangsung 22 Augustus 2014 selama 5 jam tanpa hambatan dan Sita memberikan respon yang positif pada implan”.

 

"Bionic Ear" kini sudah diaktifkan setelah Sita sepenuhnya pulih. Tentu saja Sita harus melakukan terapi yang intensif dan disiplin untuk membuatnya berfungsi dengan baik dan Sita mampu memanfaatkannya dengan optimal. Kini, setelah satu minggu dipasang, alatnya sudah disetel ke tingkat kepekaan 3 (dari 4) dan Sita sudah respon terhadap suara. Tentunya sekarang mulailah pekerjaan mengajar Sita arti dari suara, kata, dan bahasa umumnya.

 

Mengenai biaya Rp67jt yang dikeluarkan untuk operasi dan USD 28000sudah tertutup dengan bantuan teman dan kantor. Namun kini masih ada biaya ke depan – terapi, baterai, maintenance. Contohnya satu kabel konektor untuk alat itu sudah rusak (karena memang riskan dan sering harus diganti) seharga Rp 700rb, dan lain sebagainya. Belum lagi kalau kerusakan alat terjadi setelah garansi habis (3 tahun) – harganya Rp 100jt.

 

Rio Helmi Photo Gallery akan menyisihkan sebagian dari hasil penjualan semua  foto selama September, Oktober, dan November untuk disumbangkan untuk keperluan terapi dan maintenance peralatan Sita.

 

 

 

 


The rains are here!

Well here I am, post monsoon Bali, early monsoon Thailand - and the rainy season hit Miyazaki today. urgh. But now I know why they have umbrella locks in this town - felt like grabbing an umbrella myself!!!dsc_8339.jpg


suvarnabhumi airport: on to Fukuoka

So many people think that to travel constantly for work is glamorous. Yep, all those security checkpoints, the moving goalposts of international safety, the crazy taxi drivers, and in Bangkok all the exercise getting to the waiting lounge.
Not to mention that the sponsors of my exhiition in Miyazaki have informed me that they are picking me up at the airport tomorrow morning... and then we get on a 5 hour bus ride to Miyazaki. Oh the comforts of home!
Anyway the passengers on this flight look pretty relaxed - Japanese back from Holiday. Either that or Fukuoka is pretty relaxed...
Finally got the uploading for images to the blog to work, so I did post two images that I printed on canvas and painted. Will try and do more from Japan. I decided to restrict myself to one camera and two lenses. A little discipline, think more carefully about what I shot. We'll see. (Okay I do have my little lumix with me as well as the D3). Miss the days of my Contax G2 film rangefinders, they were fast, light, discreet and sharp as a tack. Hmm wonder when someone is going to make the first digital rangefinder with the capacity that the D3 has?

OKay they are calling the flight. More from Japan!


Paint those photos!

One day a friend of mine, David Travelian, showed me some simple oil painting techniques which I applied to some photographs I had printed on canvas. It was a big buzz for me, years ago I had tried my hand at painting but turned to photography instead. So far I have done about 12 canvases, and as each one develops the interesting thing is that there is always an unpredictability about how the colors will respond to the various densities of photographs, which I have printed a bit sepia in the first place. Most of the images I have done are black and white, and the couple of color ones I have almost completely desaturated before printing. It’s kind of fun imagining colors (skin tones are a special challenge!) Not to mention how fun it is to get messy and mix it up with oil paints.


15 Minutes with Daniel Ziv

My Interview with Daniel Ziv as he goes to the Busan International Film Festival to premier the theatre version of his documentary feature JALANAN as an official entry in competition..