Documentary Award Recap with Open Category Recipient Rony Zakaria and curator Wei Leng Tay

Read a recap of the artist talk for Pantura, an exhibition by Rony Zakaria, the recipient of the 2019 Objectifs Documentary Award, Open Category.

The session is a dialogue between photographer Rony Zakaria and curator Wei Leng Tay on the process of working on the project, moderated by the Programme Director of Objectifs, Chelsea Chua. The discussion has been paraphrased for brevity.

Chelsea: The Documentary Award has been an important way for us to generate more awareness about the communities in Southeast Asia and Singapore that we may not have as much awareness about. I had no idea what Pantura was till Rony came to us with this project. Rony, could you tell us about the project and how you got interested in Pantura?

Rony: Pantura is a road of over 1,000km built during the Dutch era. It was used to mobilise the army to defend against British forces and is still being used. I passed the road many times but never stopped in small towns, but I was interested and thought I’d like to do a story sometime. A couple of years ago I read a book by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of the great Indonesian writers, who wrote about the road. This sparked my interest even more. I did some research and did my first trip to Pantura, starting in a town called Lasem. I happened to be supported by Objectifs to continue the project.

Wei Leng: What was interesting in the project was that it wasn’t a linear journey for him but was back and forth. 

Rony: I didn’t just go from the southern part until the end. I did some parts, and eventually passed all of Pantura, but I didn’t do one part after the other non stop. I focused on a few places that interested me more and that I felt not more attached but more curious about, more relevant for me as a Chinese in the region. Lasem was one of those I visited a few times. 

Chelsea: As part of the award you worked with Wei Leng who is a visual artist in her own right, to curate the show. Could both of you say a little bit about the process of working together?

Wei Leng: When we first started working on this together he had already done several trips as part of the submission. It was quite difficult because there were so many images, over 8 months we met several times and went through the photos together. I remember the first time we went through the photos together you had already – there were hundreds of photos. How do you look at, organise hundreds of photos? That was my first impression. 

Rony: For me at the beginning when I submitted the proposal to Objectifs, I was just collecting stories. I knew the context I wanted at that time it hasn’t taken form yet like it has right now. I just collected images along the road, whatever interested me. Everything just caught my eye along the road. When I was with Wei Leng both of us agreed that we should have a focus on something.

Wei Leng: He talks about it in the sense of what interests me, which sounds arbitrary but it’s not. I think you would go to different, specific cities, and you were looking for specific things in the cities. Although it was initially an exploratory trip and you did not know what you were going to find, you were talking about how quickly you began to get a sense of what you were looking for, for example in Lasem which is a city where the Chinese landed in Java.

Rony: It was one of the first cities where the Chinese landed in Java.

Wei Leng: How did a place like that attract you, how did you decide you wanted to photograph this?

Rony: Lasem sparked my interest at first, I learned about the Yellow War where the Malay, the Chinese and the Arabs joined forces against the Dutch but in the end they got beaten up, and it affected the Dutch severely. They initiated a policy to divide the races so they would not fight again that way but would have clashes socially. 

Chelsea: Why did you include the subtitle?

Rony: In my proposal for Objectifs, aside from documenting the road itself, I wanted to look at colonialism as well as Dutch government buildings. For a lot of people if you talk about Pantura they know it is made by a guy named Daendels who is really evil, the governor general at the time. But they don’t know who he is aside from the name.

Wei Leng: When you talked about the “intangibles of the road”, how do you think about and look at the remains of this colonialism?

Rony: When I photograph, I am just collecting stories and images I see that interest me. When we edit, I start to focus more on the context. It’s very helpful to have you working with me side by side on this. 

Chelsea: Your approach to image making is sort of intuitive and to photograph what catches your eye, a very visually led approach that is also reflected in the curation of the show. Over the years when we have presented documentary photography shows at Objectifs, they are often themed in the sense that you can look at the photos and they are grouped by certain industries or certain geographical locations. In this show the approach is quite different, perhaps the both of you could talk about that?

Rony: My background is in photojournalism, so I work mainly for the international media, where I am photographing to illustrate a story. For projects like this I want to make pictures not for other people but for my curiosity. I need to not be too conscious as a photographer about the angles that allow me to capture the subject in a certain light, though sometimes I still fall into that old habit as I was trained as a photojournalist. 

Wei Leng: You are also asking then, how it is that the show is not thematic. I think that one of the things that came up in our conversations over the months is a realisation, on my part, that things are not driven by issues. That is not the point of what he is doing. Of course, since Rony’s images are documents of things that are happening in different places along the road, you will see certain issues that might come along, but that is not the main goal of what he was doing. Similarly, in terms of how the images are presented in the space, it was very important for us to use a visual narrative where there can be a way of linking the images in various ways. This sometimes emerges through content, sometimes through geometry, and sometimes through the opposition of the photographs to have a sort of flow through the space. We also thought about how we could utilise sizes to draw a person in to look at an image, to move a person out, and to you help a person move along to see different images together. In doing so, this also reflects how Rony was working, as he too is going in and out as he visits different places. It is not a very strict way of travelling or a way of looking.

Chelsea: I have a question about the captions that you had chosen to accompany the images. They are quite minimal captions that list the year and place where the image was made, as opposed to how we often see a lot of text accompanying images in documentary projects. Could you share more about this decision?

Rony: It was an unconscious choice for me. For instance, in this photo of a salt farm in central Java, I don’t think the caption would add more to an understanding of the context of the work. I want people to first experience the work visually, and then to be able to ask more questions about the image. I think if you have more questions for each photo you engage with, and if you are interested enough in the visuals, you will naturally want to find out more about the project. The story of the histories has already been done by historians. I think people who are interested may then look to historians for more detailed reading materials. To me, it is more important for viewers to partake in the experience of going through this work in the present, from an objective point of view.

Chelsea: The other thing that I found interesting was that you’ve had a very long career in photography and have produced two photo books. Editing for books is very different to putting together a show. How was that experience different, and how did working with Wei Leng add to your own experience in putting together an exhibition?

Rony: I have just finished my second book Men Mountains, and the Sea, and I think I am quite experienced with the process of putting together a book and working with editors. Exhibitions are more challenging because I don’t do a lot of shows. Working with Wei Leng has been quite interesting for me, and I have learnt so much about how to lay out the photographs. I know how to take and explain photos, but I think I have more to learn in terms of the skills needed to lay out photos. 

Chelsea: Wei Leng, were there certain spatial considerations when you were working on the show with Rony, what was the sort of experience the both of you were looking to give the audience? 

Wei Leng: For me one of the important things we considered when thinking about the layout is the encounter with the images in the space, how you can come towards and walk away from a photo, but also how, within the space, the different positions of the photos can juxtapose and create meaning. Having enough space was also important to me. However, given that this is an ongoing project with a lot of images, I had to reconcile that need for space with the content or visual information that was necessary to create a narrative that Rony wanted in this space. 

Question from the audience: Why did you choose to shoot in black and white? 

Rony: I am always asked why I use black and white. It is a personal preference. However, have started to reflect on why I gravitate towards black and white images. In Indonesia, we get really beautiful light for a few hours in the late afternoon, but most of the time, you have to shoot in the day. If you shoot in colour, you have to process images with good and bad light, and I personally prefer not to use Photoshop to edit my images too heavily. I realised that shooting in black and white is simpler and it allows me to concentrate more on the images, and allows me to visualise the images more easily.

Question from the audience: Firstly, how do you go about finding the places you shoot at? Do you discover other places beyond the route that you are tracing? I would also like to know if you had experienced any unexpected encounters on the journey that differed from your initial research about the locations that you were travelling to?

Rony: Most of the places I found on the road, but a few places I found while exploring the bigger cities like Bandung or Surabaya. I don’t necessarily just focus on the road itself, but also the towns or the places that it passes. Regarding your second question, one instance was the photo of the kids. I had taken that image on my off day after meeting my friend. I stumbled upon that scene, felt compelled to shoot it, and took a few shots of the scene without consciously adopting the role of a photographer – that was a nice surprise. However, there were times when I experienced bad surprises too. Once I had made plans to stay in a big town for five days, where there was a large temple that was built way before the Dutch came. When I arrived, I realised there wasn’t much going on. There are times when my plans don’t work out but you just have to move on when doing such a project.

Question from the audience: In documentary projects, people always like to hear the stories behind them. Along the way, did you meet the people and collect their stories in other forms, such as through interviews, or did you only want the stories to be transmitted visually?

Rony: I do collect stories from people I encounter. I want people to question everything after looking at the images, and not to focus solely on the historical context. Hopefully in the next chapter, in the next show or book, the stories will be more apparent. 

Wei Leng: There are very many narratives present in every single photograph. I think when he talks about interviews with people, that is a very different component in his journey as compared to what his photographs do and convey. These are documents of the time when he was there, and at the point in time when he took the photos. That moment may change over time.

Comment from the audience: When I look around, the visual narrative is very strong to me. The lack of captions and the use of black and white compelled me to use my own imagination, and I felt as though I were being taken on a road trip as I looked at the images, where you come across small incidents and small towns on the journey. 

Rony: The experience you described was what I had hoped to evoke in a viewer. I wanted viewers to enjoy the visual experience with their own imagination, and if the images spark enough interest, that serves as a springboard for them to research for more information afterwards. 

Pantura runs at Objectifs till 19 Apr 2020.

While at our space, be sure to visit The Believers, an exhibition by the recipient of the 2019 Objectifs Documentary Award, Emerging Category, Dave Lim. Visit this link to read a recap of the artist talk between Dave Lim and his mentor Ian Teh.

The Objectifs Documentary Award champions our mission to broaden perspectives through image making, by supporting original voices in visual storytelling in Singapore and the wider region. The Award enables photographers to work on new or existing projects, encouraging them to discover and tell stories about their native communities. It welcomes different creative approaches to non-fiction storytelling, from conventional documentary photography to visual experiments.

Objectifs is accepting applications for the 2020 Objectifs Documentary Award, which is open to image makers in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Please click here to view more details.