Erik Prasetya: Portraying Indonesia Through The Lens Of Optimism

Rob Yates

A boyish, inspiring optimism is the force fueling Erik Prasetya’s latest print-project, so far untitled and predicted to be released in 2015. Furthermore, after four decades of working with black-and-white film, the Indonesian photographer has switched to bold digital color images for his most recent work. We take a close look at Erik Prasetya and discover more about the man behind the camera.

It might be tempting to view Prasetya’s delayed shift to color as part of a broader, increasingly positive approach to documenting the streets of Indonesia’s capital. His only previous book, JAKARTA: Estetika Banal (2011) – a title that secured his position as one of Indonesia’s few leading lights in non-commercial photography – is an eclectic spread of black-and-white shots taken between 1990 and 2010. Given the country’s political upheaval of the 1990s – national protests directed at President Suharto’s increasingly dysfunctional, authoritarian and repressive New Order regime followed by his eventual resignation in May 1998 – and the city’s drastic and enduring divide between poverty and wealth, one might expect any Jakartan street-photo montage from the last two decades to focus primarily on confrontational politics, the poor or the social struggles of the period.
Prasetya was born in Padang, West Sumatra, in 1958. After graduating from the Bandung Institute of Technology, he briefly pursued a career in the oil industry before turning to journalism. Like the majority of Indonesian artists who, due to a scarcity of government grants or arts funding, are often forced to pursue financial rather than personal projects, Prasetya spent the bulk of his early career covering news reports and commercial shoots. In 1997, he met and worked for Sebastian Salgado, the Brazilian photojournalist. Salgado’s sometimes staged and edited capturing of economically poor subjects, his conspicuously biblical slant – the Brazilian’s Genesis collection holds clear Old Testament overtones, both in its title and composition – and his passion for investigative journalism focusing on areas outside his socio-economic background, would all go into shaping Prasetya’s own, theoretically oppositional approach, ‘Banal Aesthetics’.
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.

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