Analogue Cultural Ambassador

While waiting for paperwork to go through the system I went searching for a particular mall, which I heard had one of the last surviving film processing labs in Indonesia. There were three malls in the neighborhood, and I had forgotten which one it was, so I spent a while in the first two: huge temples of boring mass-produced global luxury that do not deserve description here. No film labs in either. I weathered the afternoon downpour and thunderstorm in one of them, and then was almost ready to give up. The third mall was run down, and didn’t look unusual from outside, so I had little hope for it, but immediately I saw some roll film in an electronics store, and asked if there was a film lab. There was: tucked in a corner, freshly renovated and still very much alive. There were also a shocking number of little stalls selling new and used camera equipment. And also a few places selling vinyl records and analogue stereo equipment, and others offering sporting goods, model cars and airplanes, and various kinds of weapons. In other words, I found the coolest mall in Jakarta.

The quest for the film lab was part of a foolish ambition I’d conceived before I started this trip: to reacquaint myself with my old Hasselblad medium format film camera, and take pictures with it during what were bound to be long periods of down time. Maybe the collected photos can become something worthwhile, a little side-project to do after the dissertation. The photography would also be part of the plan to cross cultural boundaries, part of my job as a “cultural ambassador” for Fulbright. I’ll return to that in a second—this seems as good a place as any to set down the thoughts I’ve had about this plan.

First, for that plan to really work, I needed a light meter to replace one I’d left behind in the US (on a big trip like this, I always forget something important). So I asked around the stalls that sold film cameras, and slowly realized I was searching through a treasure trove—everything from forgettable consumer offering to professional-grade Mamiyas, Rolleis, Bronicas, and even Hasselblads like my own, with a few truly odd specimens, such as a gold-plated Nikon with snake leather. In one of the more ancient stalls, I spent a long time talking with a well-traveled Indonesian who had taken up photography in his retirement. He told me the story of how the whole concentration of camera sellers had collected around this one stall, that seemed to specialize mostly in old Nikons. I found a light meter there—a Sekonic from the ‘60s, complete with the case and instruction manual in Japanese—but the price seemed too high. It was better as a collector’s item than as a practical tool. Eventually I found a suitable one in another stall. It was a truly lucky find.

The fellow I had the long conversation with said that on the whole, Indonesians are naïve when it comes to cameras: they’ll discard a perfectly good old one to get the next new model, even though there’s not much substantial difference between them. The number of pristine used cameras in that mall certainly supported his idea. It also seemed to confirm a fantasy I had—perhaps a colonialist fantasy, it’s true—that hidden away in the megacities of Asia there must be a lot of old equipment, mothballed away and waiting to be whisked off somewhere where someone will make good use of it. In fact, people here in Jakarta are making good use of many of those cameras. It’s still a small subculture for a city of ten million, but it’s there. As a result, cameras aren’t much cheaper here than they are in the US. In many cases, they’re far more expensive. So, my fantasy of leaving Indonesia with a suitcase full of cameras might not work in practice. Meanwhile, I have more cameras in my field gear than I know what to do with, and that brings me to my plan to encourage cultural exchange: The Mars Project.

You are leaving on a mission to Mars. You will be gone for at least a few years, and it is possible that you may never return to Earth. Although Mars is likely uninhabited, and your entire stay there will likely be solitary, there is a small chance that you will encounter life there. On your spacecraft you have enough space to carry one roll of film worth of photographs—a maximum of 36. These will be your only visual reminder of life on Earth. You must take and select photographs that make the most of your limited storage space.

This assignment came from Keith Fleming, my first anthropology teacher. He was also a Marine, archaeologist, published historian, and serious amateur photographer. I immediately thought of his idea when the Fulbright application asked me to plan an activity that would allow me to facilitate cultural exchange. I would do a Mars Project on my life in the US, and lend my Indonesian friends digital cameras so they could document their own lives in the same way. I could give them some basic lessons in how to use a camera, and prints of their Mars Project selections—photo prints are still precious in a place with no reliable electricity.

I had once been a serious photographer, and still had a beautiful Hasselblad medium-format film camera, which I had long neglected but never been heartless enough to sell. Around the same time as I decided on the Mars Project, I went to a friend’s photo show in a Seattle coffee shop. Jay Flaming is a more meticulous and technically proficient photographer than I will ever be, but as I looked at his work and talked with him about it, I remembered how much I loved shooting film. So, I made an ambitious and foolish decision: I would do my Mars Project all on film. I set up a makeshift film processing station in the UW geoarchaeology lab, and loaded the film in my apartment bathroom—the only perfectly dark room I could find. Although it had been years, I recovered the darkroom techniques that I’d learned from my mother and Robert Gibeau, who ran a small community darkroom in Port Townsend ages ago. I spent a lot of Fulbright money on film and chemicals, plus a couple new pieces of equipment, but then, I had their official approval to carry out this rather self-indulgent plan. The Department of State would bankroll my artistic pretensions in the name of greater cultural understanding.

The specifications of the Mars Project seem simple, but I ended up thinking about the spirit of the exercise a great deal, since in effect I would be doing something similar to a mission to Mars—a trip almost a year long, to an unfamiliar and isolated place. The most significant difference was the guarantee of intelligent life at my destination. Other than that, the similarities were striking. What kind of photographs should I search out, and which would make the cut into the final 36?

It seemed like the most important thing was that the images should have a great density of meaning and information. There should be a lot going on, and there should be a deep personal resonance, or ideally multiple layers of it. I should be able to spend hours staring at one of the photographs, and someone who had no connection to it should also be able to understand something relevant from it. My usual tendency when taking pictures is to go for a single, visually stunning statement. I want it to be simple, direct, not requiring much mental processing. The parameters of the Mars Project were different. Like a Classical Chinese landscape painting, the image must allow the viewer to wander around it with their eyes, discovering new details with each repeated viewing. I wasn’t used to this kind of density, and in my 36 pictures didn’t achieve it very often.

Some people I talked to thought density was the wrong way to approach it; I think they imagined I meant density of stuff in the frame, and in some cases that worked pretty well; I picked several cityscapes of Seattle that showed its complexity and beauty, and provided a lot to talk about. In other cases I was going for density of meaning, so what seems like a simple landscape or portrait actually resounds through the stories tied up in it. But I maintain that wandering through an image and finding new things to notice with every viewing is important for this particular assignment. If you’re taking pictures for an advertisement or a magazine article, there’s no reason to have that depth—in fact, it’s probably a downside. But in this case, the depth has to be there. Imagine being stuck in a spacecraft with only a few photographs, and getting bored with one of them!

Because of all this, the selection of images has been as much work as the shooting of them, and before I left the US, I was only able to pick about half of them. The rest I’ll have to select here in Jakarta, where I can find someone to print them. Another thing to do as I wait for the final pieces of paperwork that will make official my residency and research in Indonesia.

There’s the other half of my plan, though—what will my Indonesian friends put in their Mars Projects? I have lent cameras out a couple of times. The results have been mixed. A lot of the images are not well composed, yet often there is one that I know I simply could never have taken myself. The best example is the one below, taken by someone who wasn’t much older than the subject who picked up the camera and started experimenting. I don’t know if he’d ever used such a camera before, but the result speaks for itself. I don’t think I’ve ever taken such a haunting picture.

Boy with a parang, Ujir.

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