Exhibition brochure, published in conjunction with the 1999 group exhibition of Ruang MES 56, titled Revolution #9, at Antara Photojournalism Gallery (GFJA), Jakarta. Courtesy of Angki Purbandono.
YS: I first got to know Nuraini Juliastuti (b. 1975, Surabaya; co-founder of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta) who was still a student then. I think I assigned her the task of writing a report on photography in Yogyakarta for Fotocopy, the monthly newsletter that GFJA printed using a photocopier. From there, I got acquainted with Angki Purbandono (b. 1971, Cepiring; founding member of Ruang MES 56). I think Ruang MES 56 subsequently approached us with a proposal, which was quite interesting. It was important for me as a curator to have diversity in the works we presented. I wasn’t interested in just championing a certain kind of photography. With Ruang MES 56, we could finally shift our focus from Jakarta and Bandung to Yogyakarta where there were photographers working in a different way to the pictorial or salon photographers there. In a way, they were students rebelling against their education, their environment and the photo industry as a whole. If we did the show at GFJA, it would surely provoke discussions. The show also featured some nudity. Because the photographers were Indonesians rather than Germans, for instance, it felt closer to home. The show took place during the period of openness after Reformasi (which toppled Suharto) and before the emergence of fundamentalism.
At that time, Angki already sold one of his works to a Dutch collector. Anyway, none of us could have predicted their success today. I am happy for them. But the discussion we had in 2012, which Ruang MES 56 invited me for, was more about the present and the future. What’s next for Ruang MES 56? Have they forgotten their roots? Is this it? Is this how far they can go? Do they need to reinvent themselves? I don’t know. But the discussion was interesting because of the sense of uncertainty that prevailed.
ZW: When you presented Ruang MES 56 or Ray Bachtiar at GFJA, why didn’t you just say that you were promoting photography as art?
YS: When I started as a curator, I said I was not going to talk about art. I was very explicit about it because the term “art” would propel us into a never-ending debate, which was meaningless. If you read the old mission statement of GFJA, we thought of photography basically as a language. It was a language that needed to be understood. Through the process of creation, exhibition making, and debate, we would create an understanding of the times and the world we lived in. Of course, there was artistry in the works we exhibited but that would not be the main focus of our mission. If we thought of photography as a language, it would be easier to have a discussion with people who did not understand much about photography. With art, we would have to go into all kinds of theory. It would be unproductive.
ZW: Wasn’t such an approach contradictory to your intention of elevating the status of photography?
YS: That would come. When people started seeing photography as a language, they would want to know how to read it. With that, they would realise the intention of the photographer and the importance of its context. That was why each exhibition at GFJA was accompanied by a curatorial introduction and a public discussion with the artist. Little by little, people started appreciating photography. It was not so much about whether this was art or not. They realised that there was something important enough for the photographers to photograph and share it with the viewers, and that it was important enough for people to come to the gallery to view and interact with the work, and to raise questions about it. That was far more relevant to me, rather than whether the work was considered artistic or not.
ZW: In your desire as GFJA’s curator to expand the definition of photojournalism, you seemed to contrast it against press photography. How do you define photojournalism?
YS: Well, press photography is very quick. You go out, shoot, return to the office, deliver it, and move on to the next thing. You have no connection with what you did yesterday. Photojournalism is more of an approach. It is a wider set of ideas through which you perceive the world, which informs the way you record and express yourself.
ZW: Is photo documentary more advanced than photojournalism?
YS: Photo documentary is more complex. It requires greater commitment from the photographer in terms of time and his or her relationship with the subject. Photojournalism can take all kinds of form. Photo documentary is the form in itself. When I fell in love with photography, it was because the medium allowed me a way to discover and uncover the world. Photo documentary provides us the best form to achieve that. It is not the perfect form. But it is the best form to do so.
ZW: On hindsight, what does curating entail?
YS: A curator must research. Part of the curator’s job is to translate, interpret, and provide access to what he or she is researching. You research something that is interesting, something that needs to be brought up as a discourse because nobody is talking about it. But a curator’s job is to take that research, however complex and difficult it may be, and present it in a way that is accessible to the layperson. That’s a different challenge, which brings us to a different aspect of the curator’s job, which is to organise the exhibit. It entails very technical stuff like selecting the pictures, printing, designing the space, book publishing, designing and producing the promo materials, etc. That’s the complete job scope. It is not just researching or writing. Some curators just write an intro text to an exhibition. For me, it’s more than that.
ZW: Why did you include workshops to the programming of GFJA?
YS: If we merely exhibited works, there wouldn’t be a lot of things to do for the visitors. They would come to see the show and they wouldn’t return until the next exhibition. But if you had workshops and discussions, it would be more attractive for people to revisit the venue for the duration of each show.
I was also thinking about the experience that people would get when they engaged an institution or organisation. They might come in because they were interested in a particular show. The following week, they would be able to meet the photographer and ask questions, listen to what he or she had to say about the exhibit. After that, they might wish to try their hands on a bit of photography. This is what they call the ladder of engagement. Instead of providing one kind of engagement, you have different levels of engagements. Each level of engagement brings you deeper into the relationship. That was the reason for us to run workshops at GFJA.
Zhuang, Wubin. “Curating Photography in Indonesia: An Interview between Zhuang Wubin and Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo”. In Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing, edited by Alka Pande, 304-15. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2019.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Zhuang Wubin, Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo and Alka Pande for giving us the permission to republish this interview. We feel that this article is an important effort to archive ideas of and conversations with photography figures in Indonesia and to continue to develop knowledge on photography in Indonesia. With the current flow of information that comes and goes so quickly, it’s easy for photography practitioners to feel disconnected from the history of photography that has actually shaped photography in Indonesia today. We hope that this brief conversation between #ZhuangWubin and Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo is a useful source for all of us.
You can also read the pdf version of this article on our issuu page here.
16 June 2020.