In the foreward to JAKARTA: Estetika Banal, Firman Ichsan writes that Prasetya ‘critiqued the classical aesthetic approach, even saying most photographers possess a middle-class aesthetic that leans toward voyeurism or romanticism, if not exoticism –a situation that must be overcome by photographers when shooting in order to get at the ‘truth’’.
This reluctance to stray too far beyond the confines of one’s own familiar surroundings, informs Prasetya’s Jakartan photographs. There are portraits of neglected cattle traders and fishermen, shots of detained human rights activists and student protests, but the artist appears to be drawn more by dozing rail commuters, sedentary shop owners, family gatherings and recognizably middle-class settings. In an interview for the White Board Journal last year, Prasetya spoke candidly of his own class position and the importance he assigns to it in relation to his work: ‘If I were to photograph the lower class, that means exoticism, and if I were to approach the upper class, it is more like peeking. Thus, if I want to be reflective, I probably have to approach subjects that are in the same class as I am in. As a photographer coming from the middle class, I belong neither to the lower or upper class.’
He was by no means detached however, from the political events of the period. When the movement for ‘Reformasi’ (political reformation) gained momentum during the late 1990s and the fall of Suharto seemed within reach, Prasetya held photography workshops for university students to aid their documentation of the protests, hoping that whatever unfolded in the capital over the coming years – however disruptive, novel or bloody – would be recorded for posterity. Yet, despite his engagement with political activism, the bulk of Prasetya’s photographs during this twenty year block suggest a closer affinity with every day, non-politicized citizens of Jakarta; office workers, bus passengers, restaurant owners and taxi drivers.
Speaking as a judge for the IPA Street Photography Asia Awards in 2013, Prasetya said: ‘Street photography gives chances to new photographers, even those with simple technology, as the subjects they are working with can be in their own backyards; the compositions of their pictures are based on their affinity and personal relation with the subjects. While other ‘genres’ are often based on ‘assignments’, most street photos are personal and independent undertakings worthy to be nurtured as they can open up our minds to new aesthetic and understanding.’
Despite the diverse and occasionally disorganised feel of JAKARTA: Estetika Banal, it is clear that Prasetya was guided first and foremost by this adherence to ‘his own backyard’. Perhaps his insistence on the value of subjects within one’s social and geographical grasp is a reason why many young, aspiring Indonesian photographers look to him as a role-model. Japan, Hong Kong, China and Singapore have traditionally been at the forefront of photo-journalism and artistic photography in Asia, containing comparatively prosperous middle-classes with greater access to the technology needed for these pursuits. Prasetya’s theoretical approach – to shoot what you know and to dispel the myth that traveling extensively is a prerequisite for interesting photography – has likely struck a chord with a young Indonesian generation, struggling with economic constraints greater than those of their more affluent contemporaries.