Stories of People and Their Land

In partnership with WRI Indonesia, we conducted a series of visual narrative workshops in 4 cities: Pekanbaru, Palembang, Manokwari and Jakarta. Through these workshops, we selected 14 stories by local photographers featuring diverse perspectives on land issues and the need for improved land governance towards a more socially and environmentally-friendly future for Indonesia. To communicate and promote the selected visual narratives, we held a series of events which include a photo exhibition, discussions, and augmented reality installation titled “Stories of People and Their Land” at Salihara Gallery, 2-8 October 2019.

Stories of People and Their Land

Human beings are inseparable from the land they stand on. Land is where we do our daily activities, earn our livelihood, the place we return to when life comes to an end. Land plays an important role in constructing the layers that make up our identity and the history of our civilization reflects perceived human attachment to the land.

Demand for land and all its sustenance will continue to grow along with rising human population on Earth, despite land’s finiteness as a natural resource. Its scarcity presents an almost surefire recipe for land access inequality and clashes due to conflicting perspectives about land. Furthermore, our endless need for land brings heavy consequences for the environment. Land use – forest encroachment, forest fires, land use change – makes up 47.8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia, contributing directly to the current climate crisis. 

Indonesia is a country where land disputes almost never see a resolution. The conflicting parties almost always use different references to support their claims. This is why multiple and often contradicting data sources are one of the main causes of land conflicts in Indonesia.    

In an attempt to untangle this complicated issue, the government initiated the One Map Policy (Kebijakan Satu Peta, KSP). The idea is to use a single map that all stakeholders agree on as a point of reference to prevent overlapping land use and land planning, so that resolutions could be found for disputes over land ownership claims. The One Map Policy is developed in three stages: compilation, integration, and synchronization – of 85 thematic maps across 34 provinces by 19 ministries and government agencies. The process is still underway. 

Public support is critical to achieving the objectives of One Map Policy. One major challenge is the lack of depth when imagining land issues in Indonesia, which could be due to poor policy communication. Land issues are often depicted in complex narratives far removed from the daily lives of most people. For instance, it is difficult to convince urban citizens to care about land use change using only case studies on deforestation and monoculture plantations – issues that are pressing, yet too distant from urban life. 

This is even more apparent when discussing evidence-based policies such as KSP, where we are presented with briefs written in formal legalese, supported by data in numbers and statistics. While facts and figures may be relevant, they are unlikely to attract the attention of the general public.  

It is in this context that photography can be used as an alternative, subtler medium of communication, a tool to bring land issues closer to the heart of the people. A number of premises support this argument. First, photography is highly accessible. Given its popularity and ease of use, photography has become a universal language in our daily communication, which we accept and consume almost without hesitation.  

Second, photography invariably deals with perspectives. The best photographs capture not only aesthetic factors and essential information, but also bring about a sense of involvement, as if the viewers were given the chance to see and experience things from the photographer’s point of view. In other words, photography has the power to tell relatable and engaging stories.

Linking it back with land issues, we can imagine how photography has the potential to redefine and awaken new imaginations on matters previously perceived as too far removed from us. Complexities of a major discourse are explored and broken down into pieces of narratives experienced by many people. 

Against this backdrop, the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia in collaboration with Arkademy held a series of visual narrative workshops titled KELANA – On Land in four cities: Pekanbaru, Palembang, Manokwari, and Jakarta.  These intensive, 10-day workshops aim to observe, explore, and capture stories of human being’s relationship with the land in various dimensions and dynamics. 

To achieve this goal, the workshops were designed comprehensively. The first part of the workshop covers basic materials including introduction to critical photography, visual storytelling, visual literacy, and history of photography, followed by discussions and sharing sessions facilitated by Arkademy mentors. 

After exploring basic concepts in the introduction, participants are asked to pitch an idea for their own visual story project and brainstorm with the group. Once their project ideas are accepted, participants are given 5-6 days to shoot at various locations in or around the city. Photographs taken during this period are then edited to assemble a photo story to be presented to the public. The editing process of each photo story is guided by mentors from Arkademy and involves active participation by the other workshop participants.  

Over the course of this workshop series, conducted throughout June-August 2019, 31 photo stories were created featuring various perspectives and narrative styles. The diversity of narratives that emerged from this exercise reflects the complexity of land issues; from geographic properties to climate crisis, lackluster spatial planning regulations and the resulting social impacts on residents, the role of communities in securing land rights, as well as the many  historical, cultural, and societal dimensions of the four cities where the workshops were held. In short, these photo stories managed to capture the complexity of land issues in Indonesia, demonstrating how things are not so black and white, but full of layers and nuances. Land issues are ultimately tied to issues of environment, class, and cultural contexts. 

The richness of narratives presented in these photo stories is also due to the demographic makeup of the workshop participants. Only a small proportion of them identify as professional photographers. Other participants come from various backgrounds and occupations: students, architects, writers, radio announcers, activists, and statisticians. 

Arkademy selected 14 photo stories to be presented in this exhibition. Selection criteria include not only the aesthetic quality of the work itself, but also the story’s context in relation to the works by the other participants, both within the same workshop or those in other cities. Six underlying themes frame the photo stories featured in this exhibition: Exploitation, New Landscapes, Vulnerability, Land and Death, Strategies, and Hope. 

These themes enable viewers to explore a particular topic from multiple perspectives. We hope these stories can pave the way to expand public dialogue on land issues, ultimately enriching our collective imagination. 

Jakarta, 2 October 2019

Photos by Kurniadi Widodo.